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Typo: A Monthly Newspaper and Literary Review, Volume 2

The Enemies of Books

page 46

The Enemies of Books.

The Enemies of Books, by William Blades. Revised and enlarged by the author. London: Elliot Stock. 1888.

Comparatively few printers really appreciate books. Few except those who are possessed with a love of their art for its own sake may be said to have any true knowledge of the subject at all. A Book worthy of the name is something to be treated with reverence, and carefully cherished.

Foremost among the learned and book-loving printers of England is Mr William Blades, well known as the biographer of Caxton, and one of the greatest authorities on all subjects connected with early printing. Mr Blades's researches among mouldy and worm-eaten volumes, in ancient and dusty libraries, have brought prominently before him the subject treated in the present charming little work— « the enemies of books. » It is some years since the first edition appeared. Since then Mr Blades has collected a good deal of curious and interesting information on the subject, and the new edition is enriched with many anecdotes and illustrations not to be found in the first.

To each of the principal « enemies » a chapter is devoted; and beginning with the forces of nature, the most destructive is Fire. But this agent has been largely employed in the interests of strife, ignorance, and bigotry, and more justifiably, in the destruction of immoral and pernicious literature. Mr Blades thus discourses on an ancient bonfire of books:

Among the earliest records of the wholesale destruction of Books, is that narrated by St. Luke, when after the preaching of Paul, many of the Ephesians « which used curious arts brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. » (Acts xix, 19). Doubtless these books of idolatrous divination and alchemy, of enchantments and witchcraft, were righteously destroyed by those to whom they had been and might again be spiritually injurious; and doubtless had they escaped the fire then, not one of then would have survived to the present time, no MS. of that age being now extant. Nevertheless, I must confess to a certain amount of mental disquietude and uneasiness when I think of books worth fifty thousand denarii—or, speaking roughly, say £18,750 of our modern money, being made into bonfires. What curious illustrations of early heathenism, of Devil worship, of Serpent worship, of Sun worship, and other archaic forms of religion; of early astrological and chemical lore, derived from the Egyptians, the Persians, the Greeks; what abundance of superstitious observances and what is now termed « Folk-lore »; what riches, too, for the philological student, did these many books contain, and how famous would the library now be that could boast of possessing but a few of them!

It may also be noted here, that to the pious zeal of the early Church against idolatrous, blasphemous, and heretical writings, we have to attribute the destruction of contemporary references to Christianity which would now be invaluable as evidences.

Here we have an account of a literary holocaust of more recent date:

The magnificent library of Strasburg was burnt by the shells of the German army in 1870. Then disappeared for ever, together with other unique documents, the original records of the famous law-suits between Gutenberg, one of the first Printers, and his partners, upon the right understanding of which depends the claim of Gutenberg to the invention of the Art. The flames raged between high brick walls, roaring louder than a blast furnace. Seldom indeed have Mars and Pluto had so dainty a sacrifice offered at their shrines; for over all the din of battle, and the reverberation of monster artillery, the burning leaves of the first printed Bible and many another priceless volume were wafted into the sky, the ashes floating for miles on the heated air, and carrying to the astonished countryman the first news of the devastation of his Capital.

To a more serious literary loss than this, and a more evil deed—it being a piece of deliberate Vandalism—Mr Blades makes no reference. This was the destruction by the English in 1857 of the Summer Palace at Pekin, with its unique Imperial library, including the private archives of the Chinese Empire. By this atrocious action were sacrificed the most ancient consecutive historic and scientific records in the world—a sacrifice which will be deplored by students of history, ethnology, chronology and astronomy, to the end of time.

The illustration to the first chapter represents a maidservant tearing up a « Caxton » to start the fire in the grate. The second chapter is devoted to « Water, » and we have an illustration of a pirate crew throwing a valuable library overboard. This incident happened in 1785. The captured ship was in truth treasure-laden, but it was not the kind of spoil the disgusted corsairs expected. In the insidious forms of roof-leakages, and penetrating vapor, water is one of the prime enemies of books.

Gas and heat form the subject of another chapter. The sulphur in the gas-fumes will in time reduce leather bindings to powder, and the higher the shelf, the more rapid and complete is the destruction. The electric light is the only artificial illumination which can be safely and conveniently used in a library. Dust and neglect are terrible agents of destruction, particularly in ancient monastic, church, and college libraries. In the chapter thus headed, Mr Blades has some harrowing incidents to relate.

Ignorance and bigotry have much to answer for. At the time of the Reformation, books, secular and sacred, were destroyed by the thousand, if they contained but illuminated letters. In 1775, the Recollet monks of Antwerp made a clearance of the rubbish in their library, and turned out fifteen hundred volumes, some manuscript and some printed, and gave the whole lot to the gardener. He thought they had a value greater than that of waste paper, and sold them at sixpence a pound to a gentleman in the neighborhood, who soon afterwards disposed of them to a London bookseller for 14,000 francs. The monks realized too late what a treasure they had despised, and humbly asked the seller to give them a portion of his gains. He gave them 1,200 francs. Many another anecdote of the same kind is to be found in the book before us.

The insect enemies of books—the Book-worms—have a chapter to themselves. Though most people have met with traces of the ravages of these creatures in old volumes, very few have seen the worm itself, and very little is known about it. Mr R. Hooke, f.r.s., in 1665, described and figured an innocent grub, the Lepisma, as the bookworm. According to Mr Blades, there are several kinds of caterpillar and grub which eat into books. Those with legs are the larvæ of moths; those without legs, or rather with rudimentary legs, are grubs, and turn to beetles. The latter are the wood-boring creatures, who also extend their ravages to books. They include three varieties of Anobium: A. pertinax, A. eruditus, and A.paniceum. Their holes are perfectly circular, and are generally at right angles to the cover; when the tunnel runs obliquely, the holes in the leaves are of course elliptical in form. The Æcophora pseudospretella is a small brown moth, the larvaæ of which also devours books. It is similar in size to the grub of the Anobium, but may be distinguished by its legs and the sucker-like protuberances on its body. It is interesting to know that modern books do not, as a rule, fall victims to the bookworm.

One result of the extensive adulteration of modern paper is that the worm will not touch it. His instinct forbids him to eat the china clay, the bleaches, the plaster of paris, the sulphate of barytes, the scores of adulterants now used to mix with the fibre; and, so far, the wise pages of old literature are, in the race against Time with the modern rubbish, heavily handicapped.

Mr Blades refers incidentally to the ants of the tropics, an army of whom is capable, in a single night, of devouring a whole library, including shelves, chairs, and tables; of a very objectionable American pest, the « Croton bug » (Blatta Germanica), with a taste for cloth page 47bindings, and which works both by day and night; of « small deer » in the shape of rats and mice; and of the ordinary house-fly, which, not content with profuse and undesirable punctuation, has been known to discharge a fluid so corrosive as to make great holes in the paper.

On the subject of Printers as enemies of books, Mr Blades is loyally silent, but he devotes a whole chapter to Bookbinders. With the guillotine, or even worse, the old-fashioned plough, the binder inflicts irreparable injuries upon precious volumes. Shaved, cropped, and bled, they are for ever ruined in the eyes of the collector. Heartrending stories are told of folios trimmed to quarto, and quartos to octavo, merely that they might range with smaller volumes; and of ancient and priceless specimens stripped of their original and appropriate coverings, reduced in size, and got up resplendently in modern velvet and gold. Worse than the book-croppers are the ruthless collectors of title-pages, initials, and engravings, who, to enrich a worthless collection, deliberately rob valuable books of their most useful and characteristic features. Dante could not have known any of these despoilers, or he would have provided a corner for them in his Inferno.

Servants and Children next claim our author's attention, and he incidentally gives a good many useful and practical hints as to the right method of tidying and dusting in a library. For there is a wrong method, by which the dust is rubbed in instead of off, and bindings are marred and scratched. As for children, the library is no place for them. We have in this chapter a true story, with a capital illustration, of a birthday party of boys turned into a library on a wet day to amuse themselves. And they did it. Dividing into hostile parties—Russians and Britishers—they piled up ramparts of the big books, and used the little ones for missiles!

After all, books, like their authors, are mortal, and sooner or later to each one must come the inevitable « Finis. » Some day the dainty little volume which tells of the enemies of its kind, will in turn fall a victim to one or the other. The work which books have done, and are still doing, will bear fruit to all time and in eternity itself: the thoughts they have inspired, the movements they have initiated, are imperishable; but no matter how treasured or cherished they may be, they must in time give place to successors, and ultimately disappear.