Category Archives: history of reading

Tearing Up Books

A client of mine, who is a rare book dealer, pulled a paperback out of his coat pocket.  It had the covers torn off and a number of pages removed. Slightly puzzled, and before I could start my “This is going to be very expensive” speech, he explained.

“When I’m finished reading a page, I tear it off and throw it away.  The book is much lighter and easier to carry.  I just do it with worthless paperbacks. Look, it is already half the size!”

I doubt any of us would have a problem with discarding an unwanted section of a newspaper.  Or a notebook page.

But a book! Symbol of permanence, order, fixed sequence and immutable fact. His action was as strong of a comment on the nature of books as many destructive and altered artist books I’ve seen. Or is it a manifestation of our single use, disposable, throw-away culture?

I couldn’t do this to a book. Could you?



Upcoming Event: Time and the Book, Yale University, September 12 and 13, 2014

Next week, on September 12 and 13, 2014, I will be participating in a symposium sponsored by the Yale Program in the History of the Book.  Registration for the symposium is full; however, Kathryn James’s lecture, “Time in Place” is open to the public.  It is great that academics are becoming interested in the book as a material object; I suspect there will be some fascinating discussions.



Paper, Paper, Paper

Before Jacques Derrida died, he used to teach a yearly seminar for grad students at New York University, which I managed to sit in on in the late 90’s.  It was completely over my head, but it was an intellectual roller-coaster that I will never forget.  I could barely remember where I lived after listening to him for a while.  One of his later books, Paper Machine, deals largely with paper and  books.

Included in the book is an interview, where he was asked to what extent paper functions as multimedia, and how paper has influenced his work.  Derrida responds:

Seeing all these questions emerging on paper, I have the impression (the impression!–what a word, already) that I have never had any other subject:  basically paper, paper , paper.  It could be demonstrated, with supporting documentation and quotations, “on paper”: I have always written, and even spoken, on paper: on the subject of paper, an actual paper, and with paper in mind.  Support, subject, surface, mark, trace, written mark, inscription, fold–these were also themes that gripped me by a tenacious certainty, which goes back forever but has been more and more justified and confirmed, that the history of this “thing,” this thing that can be felt, seen and touched, and thus contingent, paper, will have been a brief one.  Paper is evidently the limited “subject ” of a domain circumscribed in the time and space of a hegemony that marks out a period in the history of a technology and in the history of humanity. (p. 41)

Although he wrote this in 2001, it is remarkable how prescient he was, given the recent revolution in ebook readers: the Sony reader, the Kindle and the Nook.

Derrida, Jacques. Paper Machine. Trans. Rachel Bowlby. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005.

Looking At Pictures, Looking At Books

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC,  is currently exhibiting ‘Looking In:  Robert Frank’s The Americans‘. (1) The first edition of this book is the title that I have worked on the most over the years, currently five copies.  The reasons are  simple– the original Grove Press edition was perfect bound, so the pages are generally detached, or detaching. (2) When this is coupled with the fact that a first printing in good condition sells for up to $20,000, it becomes economically advantageous for the owner to have the book conserved.  I even had a magnesium die made from the title page for stamping the exterior of the drop spine box, since I tend to see this book every couple of years. Since I have spent many, many hours looking at this book, I was curious to see how I would interpret the images in a museum.  I also think this is the first time I have seen all the images from a book displayed  in a gallery.

americans die

Above is a magnesium die, reproduced photographically from the title page, used for hot stamping.

What follows are some haphazard observations on the differences between interpreting images in books verses looking at photographs in gallery setting, tempered by my experience as a conservator. (3)

Overall, there was more a sense of the similarity of the experience, rather than huge differences, in reading the book or looking at the images in the gallery. Perhaps it is because I’m already used to seeing this book in single sheets, rather than intact.  Perhaps it is because the exhibition follows the exact chronology for the 83 images. Maybe is because there is virtually no text in the book, thus reducing the dichotomy between looking and reading. The sequence of the book has always puzzled me a bit.  They aren’t arranged chronologically, thematically, narratively or even with a clear sense of formal relationships.  In fact, as I have spent many, many hours removing traces of deteriorated adhesive from the spine edges of the pages, they often tend to get out of order.  Viewing the images out of order reinforces the impression that it is not in the sequencing that its power lies, but in the massing of the images coupled with a sense of disorder, that creates this powerful, poignant snapshot of America.

Gallery viewing is public, but viewing books generally takes place in private, with the reader able to choose the pace of their viewing.  Typical of a busy museum, especially when looking at smaller format images, I was forced to stand in a line and everyone tended to move along at the same rate.  If you got tired of looking at the image in front of you, you could look back at the previous one or ahead to the next. The book, however is laid out with one image on the recto, and a simple title, often nothing more than a place name, on the verso of the previous page.  Each image in the book is encountered in isolation, and is related to the previous one only by memory, not active viewing. The layout of the images mirrors the subject of the images as well– the often mentioned pervasive loneliness and sense of isolation that Frank documented.

One aspect of Frank’s work that came through more forcefully in the gallery setting was his use of reflections, shooting through curtains, windows, etc.  The fact that the photos were framed in glass, with its own reflections, and the verticality of the picture plane emphasized this.  I interpreted the photographs more like windows, rather than like portraits in the book, both because of their verticality and large size. Many were much larger  (some impressively large for 35mm)  than the reproductions in the book, and the size varied from image to image.  I suspect each photo was printed as large as he could, and they were printed at various times during the past decades.  The regular size of the images in the book, albeit with some variation in horizontal and vertical orientation, tends to reinforce the homogeneous nature of this tour through America. (4)

I am used to looking at this book through my “conservation eyes”.  When viewing the book during conservation treatment, I generally tend not to “look” at it as a whole, but only look at the small area of damage that I am treating.  Even when I sleep on it, or step back and try to assess the whole, the areas where I have devoted so much attention to continue to beckon. Sometimes, when I’m looking at art,  I catch myself looking at a repaired area of an object, or some damage, or how it is mounted, rather than trying to appreciate it as an artistic experience.  I think it is a bad habit, possibly dangerous, in the sense that it forces my perception onto very small details, possibly at the expense of a more holistic interpretation.    When I look at the book, memories of what I treated, what was repaired, etc. constantly resurface and interfere with the intent of the artist.

But after viewing the exhibition, the book form beckoned– this time a 2008 facsimile for sale in the  museum shop,  with sewn signatures, for only $39.95.

americans sewn


1. J. Hoberman has a solid review of the show in The Village Voice which places the book in the context of late 1950’s American culture.

2. Take a close look at open first edition displayed at the beginning of the show, in the middle of the case.  Notice that the top and bottom of the page displayed is detaching. Heads up to whoever is de-installing this case- close this book very, very carefully! The glue is already very brittle.

3.  I’m going to leave aside a discussion of the most obvious difference, the difference in the visual qualities of reproduction.  Gelatin silver photographs and offset printing look quite different!

4. Differences in  various editions of the book also change the reading. Towards the end of the show, there was a case containing three various editions of the book, all open to the same image to allow easy comparison. Needless to say, the print quality varied quite a bit, and these differences influence how the images are interpreted.

15th Century Marquetry Depicting Wooden Boarded Bindings

wood marketry

Marquetry is cool. 15th century representations of books are very cool. Wooden boarded bindings are very, very cool. But marquetry from the 15th century , depicting wooden boarded books?  Very, very, very  cool.

There are from the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo in Pisa, Italy, and date between 1485-1493. The reader seems to be smiling and intently engaged with the book, which is echoed  visually in the folds of his cloth shirt radiating, indeed engulfing, the width of the open pages. The amount of throwup on the text seems extreme to me; perhaps it was artistic convention, or perhaps I’m used to handling books from this time period that the spine linings have deteriorated. I almost think there are other, chained books, hanging under the lectern.

The page edges on the volume below, on the right, are lovely, although the craftsman seemed to reverse the curve of the textblock.  The intentional wedge shape to the book (in order to make the clasps function, and depicted with the clasps unfastened) is clearly visible.  It almost looks like the endband in laced into the board.  The book under it  might be unfinished– the page edges seem cruder, and don’t depict one of the clasp catch plates. But is does seem to show a quarter leather covering- notice how the grain of the wood changes at the join.

Historic representations of books are a valuable source of information about how books were made, read and stored.

And they are very cool.

wood marketry2

Upcoming Events In June

If you are in the New England area, consider attending the Book Arts Supply Market.

Book Arts Supply Market
June 7th, 2009
Arlington Center for the Arts
41 Foster Street
Arlington, MA

I will be there with a full range of tools for sale, including the infamous bargain box, which is quite full right now.

I also have prototypes of some new tools I am working on, for example, a portable, collapsible sewing frame that only weighs 1 lb, 12.4 oz (804 grams) including 5 Al sewing keys.  It is 11 3/8″ (290 mm) between the uprights and packs flat at only 1 1/8″ (30 mm).  Rubber feet keep it from sliding around on the workbench.

portable sewing frame

Also I have a reproduction of the boxed set of knives I made for Abraham Karastovsky, which I wrote about earlier and were featured in the book “Homicide in Hardcover.”

ak knives

Please stop by and say hello!




I will be presenting the following talk in NYC on Sunday, June 21 at 3:00.  Please feel free to repost and contact me if there are any questions.  I also have a half sheet flyer I can email anyone who would like to post it.  I envision this talk as a type of outreach, since it contains information about book history and conservation.    It should be a lot of fun.




 Sunday, June 21 at 3:00 pm at SculptureCenter in Long Island City, NYC.

 The Free Skool at the University of Trash announce an Jeffrey S.  Peachey’s presentation titled “The Obsolete Man and the Obsolete Book?” The University of Trash is an experiment in alternative architecture, urbanism, and pedagogy taking place in SculptureCenter’s main space. Throughout the summer there will be a mix of workshops, screenings, and presentations focusing on grass roots, self-organized urbanism, DIY architecture and the evolving aesthetics and politics of public space.

Peachey will screen an original Twilight Zone, “The Obsolete Man”, present a short lecture, then lead a discussion based on some of the issues it raises. Peachey is the owner of a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books.  Because of his experience in examining and treating a wide variety of historic book structures, he is especially interested in how humans have interacted with the physical form of the book over the past 1,600 years, the importance of non-texual information and how the book has acquired such symbolic power.  The images of books in this episode form a locus for a variety of issues—authority, freedom, history, truth, the state, individuality, identity and conformity—that are explored in a classic Serlingesque manner.

 “I am nothing more than a reminder to you that you cannot destroy truth by burning pages.” Romney Wordsworth (Burgess Meredith) declares when the Chancellor (Fritz Weaver) pronounces him obsolete, and then condemns him to death.  Wordsworth, a secret librarian, lives in a room not only surrounded by books, but virtually built out them.  Considering aspects of book conservation, Peachey will deliver a short lecture touching on some of the ideas explored in the film, looking at how books are displayed in Wordsworth’s apartment, commenting on the various book structures portrayed and linking these to themes presented in the episode. Models of several historic book structures will available for handling. Then some more general observations on the value of non-textual elements of books will be made, along with the challenges of conserving these elements.

 This will be followed by an open discussion.  Possible topics include questions about the supposed death of the codex; the importance of non-textual elements in books; books as physical expressions of authority; books as moving, portable hand held sculpture; books as democratic instruments; the display of books as externalized knowledge; hand interaction in reading; and most importantly, how closely is our culture inexorably linked with the history of the book.

 This event is free, and there is a $5 suggested donation to the museum.

 Jeff Peachey:


The University of Trash:

 Attendees are encouraged to preview the entire Twilight Zone episode at:


18th Century French Reading

Robert Darnton’s wonderful book, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, is fascinating reading for anyone interested in the history of books.  In one section, he speculates on how people actually read a book in the 18th century.  Darnton is aware of the difficulties of moving from the what to the how of reading, but courageously proceeds.  He notes that “Books as physical objects were very different in the eighteenth century from what they are today, and their readers perceived them differently.”  Substitute “in various time periods” for “in the eighteenth century” and this statement is a concise raison d’etre for book conservation.

The following extended quotation is from the chapter titled “Readers Respond to Rousseau.”

“This typographical consciousness has disappeared now that books are mass-produced for a mass audience.  In the eighteenth century they were made by hand.  Every sheet of paper was produced individually by an elaborate procedure and differed from every other sheet in the same volume.  Every letter, word, and line was composed according to an art that gave the artisan a chance to express his individuality.  Books themselves were individuals, each copy possessing its own character.  The reader of the Old Regime approached them with care, for he paid attention to the stuff of literature as well as its message.  He would finger the paper in order to gauge its weight, translucence, and elasticity (a whole vocabulary existed to describe the esthetic qualities of paper, which usually represented at least half the manufacturing cost of a book before the nineteenth century.)  He would study the design of the type, examine the spacing, check the register, evaluate the layout, and scrutinize the evenness of the printing.  He would sample a book the way we might taste a glass of wine; for he looked at the impressions on the paper, not merely across them to their meaning.  And once he possessed himself fully of a book, in all its physicality, he would settle down to read it.” (pp. 223-224)