The Enemies of Books by William Blades

28 October 2008

In an effort to promote one of my pet online projects, Project Gutenberg’s Distributed Proofreaders, today’s review is of a book that is now freely available online for downloading as either an HTML or text file. (The text is also available as a PDF file from Google Books, if you prefer that format.)

The Enemies of Books by William Blades

William Blades (1824-1890) was the son of a south London printer who apprenticed into his father’s trade and later came to run his family’s successful printing business. His interest in printing and the print trade was not confined to the books on his family’s presses; early in his career, he became interested in the history of printing in England, and particularly in the work of William Caxton, the printer who first introduced the printing press to England in the later part of the fifteenth century. As part of his research into the output of Caxton’s press, Blades frequently went in search of books printed by Caxton and other early English printers, and his exposure to public and private libraries throughout Great Britain provided him with the opportunity to see numerous examples of proper and improper care for books. The Enemies of Books (1888), his best-known work, is a study of the many natural and man-made forces that can easily damage or destroy books and the ways to protect books against these depredations.

As an experienced printer and book collector, Blades was well acquainted with the natural enemies of books, most of which still pose hazards more than a century later. Fire is one of the obvious enemies, whether in the form of an errant spark from a chimney setting an entire collection alight or a deliberate attempt to collect and burn morally, socially, or politically unsuitable books. Blades gives examples of several pagan libraries burned by Christians and Christian libraries burned by pagans; fire, in this instance, is an equal opportunity destroyer. Water in any form is another enemy of books, for continued storage in a damp, mouldy, or frosty environment will destroy books as surely as if they had been lost at sea. Blades also describes how gas and heat can severely damage leather and cloth bindings; explains how dust, poor shelving habits, and outright neglect have been responsible for many a lost library; and goes into considerable detail about the ravages of vermin such as mice and rats, cockroaches, and the various insects that are classified under the catch-all term ‘bookworm’.

Blades’ strongest criticisms, however, are directed at the human enemies of books. He denounces bibliomaniacs who are not above stealing entire libraries to satisfy their acquisitive spirits, careless bookbinders who rebind otherwise fine volumes with shoddy workmanship and poor-quality materials, and greedy collectors who will cut pages or prints out of books and toss the gutted carcasses aside. (This is still quite true today: to give just one example, a completely intact edition of James Audubon’s original Birds of America recently sold at auction for several million dollars precisely because so many other editions have been cut up to sell the prints separately.) And as Blades was certainly a man of his era, it comes as little to no surprise that one of his later chapters focuses on the lurking dangers of servants (by which he generally means maids or housekeepers, or occasionally wives if there is no live-in maid in the house) and children. He bemoans the fact that so many wives and servants will insist on cleaning and dusting a man’s library whether or not it needs it, and cause all manner of damage to books in an effort to be helpful and thorough in the cleaning. Granted, the fairer sex are not automatically hopeless when it comes to books — ‘if one Eve in the family can be indoctrinated with book-reverence you are a happy man; her price is above that of rubies; she will prolong your life‘ — but a woman must be instructed and supervised properly in the methods of book-cleaning to prevent any mishaps. And if women are to be condemned as careless handlers of books, then children are absolutely fatal to a man’s library. They are prone to committing casual acts of ‘book-murder’ as they scribble in and rip pages from books, break hinges and spines, smear dirt and sticky fingermarks all over the pages, and occasionally pluck the books from the shelves and build table-forts with them or use them as projectiles in war games with their little chums. Of all the enemies of books, general ignorance would seem to be the worst and most persistent offender.

The Enemies of Books is a good old-fashioned bibliophile’s rant, and as a result its author may come across as a more than a little eccentric to those who might not happen to share his sentiments. ‘Looked at rightly,‘ Blades declares in the epilogue, ‘the possession of any old book is a sacred trust, which a conscientious owner or guardian would as soon think of ignoring as a parent would of neglecting his child.‘ Not everyone might be willing to go so far as to equate an improperly cared-for book with a deprived child. Yet the enduring popularity of this short work owes much to its author’s passionate language and well-researched anecdotes, which create a distinctive (read: perpetually scandalised) authorial voice that is perfect for a work like this one. And for someone who was so keen to ensure that books are protected from their enemies, Blades might be pleasantly surprised to see that his own book has been preserved in several different digital formats more than a hundred years after it first left the presses.


One comment

  1. “careless bookbinders who rebind otherwise fine volumes with shoddy workmanship and poor-quality materials, and greedy collectors who will cut pages or prints out of books and toss the gutted carcasses aside.”

    If only this were so, whereas in fact they do the opposite, rebind otherwise poor volumes with poor workmanship and poor materials…. to convince their buyers that they are buying first editions whereas in fact they are 19th or 20thC fraudulent reproductions,of 15th/16th/17thC works, manufactured at various binderies on the outskirts of London, even today.

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