A couple of weeks ago, Shiwan Rong and her crew from New Tang Dynasty News interviewed and filmed me in my studio. I recounted how I entered the field of conservation, explained some of the differences between conservation and restoration, and demonstrated a few bookbinding techniques. It was interesting to see what made it into the final cut, and despite some quibbles, overall it presents a reasonably accurate summary of what I said., considering that a three hour interview was cut down to two minutes!
One of the first questions was something like “How does it feel to be a master craftsman in the dying art of book restoration?”. This allowed me to explain that first of all, I am not a master craftsman, though I suppose anyone can call themselves one. Secondly, I discussed the differences between restoration, conservation, and bookbinding. Finally, I argued that the study and importance of the material nature of the physical book is thriving, not dying, in a large part because we as a society are not dependent on books simply for textual information. All in all, I hope the interview can educate the general public a bit about books and book conservation.
The video is accompanied by a written article and still images:
Twenty years ago this Tom Sawyer, and other expensive first editions, were often extensively restored. This often involved a lot of conservationally questionable work. Redying or painting abrasions in the cloth, sophisticating the text with better boards from later editions, mixing partial textblocks with better condition plates were all common practice. Anything, really, that would make the book appear in more pristine condition.
Dust jackets, often worth more than the book they covered, were treated similarly with invasive, invisible, and often irreversible restoration done to make them look brand new. And now, the untouched ones are worth more than ones that has been messed with. Uh-oh.
And if the label on this Tom Sawyer is a harbinger of the market, things are changing for the books too. I personally became interested in old books because I liked the way old books looked, and didn’t want to change that. Generally speaking, old books and other old things are becoming more valuable when they are genuinely old, exhibit use value, have wear, patina, history, and character. Authenticity, in a word. Three reasons for this come to mind for this change: we spend more time virtually, are overwhelmed with disposable objects that can’t be fixed or retained, and there is a dwindling supply of unaltered old objects. I’m sure there are others.
A recent NY Times article about high end watches neatly summarizes some reasons for the appreciation — romanticization?— of older watches, which also could apply to books. “… old watches are considered cool: They have patina, provenance, soul. And for a generation of men (and yes, vintage watches seem to be an obsession largely for men, with apologies to Ellen [DeGeneres]) who value the analog-chic of antique mechanical watches, just like vinyl records and selvage jeans… .” A millennial friend of mine likened the record player in her living room to a fireplace: of course it is not necessary, but it is comforting to engage with a durable antiquated technology that takes a little bit of attention and care. It wasn’t an audiophile’s opining: she liked the thingness of it.
There is an imposing presence when you hold an older book in your hands. A Benjaminian “aura”. Somehow just knowing this object has seen so much over the years impacts us. The scars, damage, wear, uniqueness, and trauma an object has encountered can often add aesthetic and sometimes even informational value. An extreme example might be the books that were damaged while by stopping a bullet, possibly saving a life. Despite being mass produced, nineteenth century titles are often unique, due to the amount of handwork that went into them at various stages of the binding, and the physical traces from their existence in time and space.
Yet I fear the book dealer’s sign on this Tom Sawyer may swing the pendulum too far. Although I only looked at this book under glass, I could think of a few very minor treatments that would greatly extend the life of this object when handled, without impacting its aesthetic value, use value, patina or other inherent qualities. Is “free from repair” a good thing if the joint continues to tear with each opening? Or was the dealer sophisticated enough to distinguish between restoration, repair and conservation?
A professional conservator (i.e. me) takes their ethical obligations to the object entrusted to their care seriously, and most of us pledge to do this in writing. The AIC guidelines for practice specifically discuss compensation for loss and reversibility. Restoration treatment may or may not reversible: conservation treatment always should be. This may be the main reason for the notice on the Tom Sawyer book: a future owner could move forward with a more invasive treatment, depending on the intended uses of the book, but could not go back. And this affects the value.
Are we finally witnessing a place for conservation oriented book treatments in the marketplace and recognition in the public sphere?