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Friday, February 24, 2006

Chapter Ninety-Eight, in which a harrowing Incident interrupts a placid Life

When your Bibliothecary opened to read Brotherhood of the Renunciants yesterday morning, we were surprised to find a wound in the front endpapers. This particular volume was published in the early 1960s, bound uniquely in human skin. The injury we discovered was a small scar at the top of the joint, just starting to expose the interior binding, and destined to spread quickly with regular handling. Indeed, the wound probably occurred at some point due to harsh handling: removing the volume from the shelf by hooking the finger at the top of the spine and pulling forward; undue pressure placed on the upper board, such as a weight intended to hold it down; a fall, landing on the upper board, thus causing what might be likened to a stress fracture; picking the book up or carrying it by the upper board alone.

We consulted with the Silent Partner, who placed a few calls to friendly practitioners of books, and all agreed ours required immediate attention before the injury could spread. So our meal ended abruptly, our wounded book placed within a carrier designed especially for safe transport of books, and off we headed to hospital.

The De Bury Document Health Center is housed in a modern building, and in addition to addressing the health needs of books, manuscripts, musical scores, maps, and other ephemera, it is also a center for scholarship and a sort of laboratory where new ideas are tested and new methods are perfected.

The center owns one of the largest stockpiles of emergency supplies and equipment in our state. Their major mission is conservation through stabilization of fragile material, rehabilitation, and full restoration. They also hold regular free seminars on using and reading books, on shelving books, on caring for and repairing disabled books. Through a consulting division they provide comprehensive recovery strategies for museums, libraries, universities, and other archival collections. Finally, there is the Emergency Response Team, prepared to deal with any rescue or salvage situation, and whose talented members worked with us on this night.

We entered an emergency room not unlike any at your local Catholic Saint Hospital. A young blonde doctor examined our book carefully. We explained we were unsure how the wound occurred. She had a calm manner and a pleasing demeanor, and reassured us by saying, "A lot of books from independent presses are made with material of poor quality that just can't stand up to time. Boards and hinges and such are moving parts that wear out eventually. What most people don’t consider is that the parts of a book work together as integrally and delicately as the inner mechanisms of a clock, and if injuries like these are ignored, they'll get worse until eventually the book will be beyond our capabilities to save it."

So to the waiting room we went, while the experts at De Bury initiated the protocol for treating the manner of injury to our special book.

A book is commonly believed to have a sort of immortality, to live on, once created, long after the writer has passed on to the great Sophia Library of the Book in the sky. True, we still can experience the observations and enjoy the creations of Oscar Wilde today as fresh as when they were still wet from his pen; this part of him lives on. But what of his writings that have not been preserved? What, to wonder a step further, about a writer whose every work has been lost?

We are presently engaged in reading The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zaf√≥n, in which a man of evil reputation murders an author and then runs around the world destroying every copy of that author’s books, thereby erasing both man and works from the true book of history. Though we do not yet know the conclusion of the story, there is truth to its fiction: who now knows The Gall of Bitterness, the only novel written by R.O. Hollyband? Written is Ambarvale in 1712, his book was privately printed in a limited number for friends and patrons, and is no longer extant. There is no immortality for Hollyband and his book. But books are designed to perpetuate and disseminate information, not entomb it. Preservation work done at places such as De Bury is critical to keeping even the smallest scrap of human knowledge from slipping back into the darkness of prehistory, as well as maintaining a strong literary heritage.

So after a few hours which featured a stress test and an ultrasound test, our book went through a brief routine surgery and came out nearly good as new. Prognosis is good for a full recovery, and our book can be returned to full use as soon as next month. We returned to Mad About Books International Headquarters full of relief and thoughts of the mortality of us all.

Modern technology now provides ways of preserving information independent of the container of the book itself. Such books may then survive for only a limited period of time, while their content, like the soul within a human body, may live on. Just as we bury a human body following death, Muslims often bury a Koran when it has exhausted its life. Many bibliophiles will burn their books in a death rite of respect. Some book-fanciers will donate their lifeless books to others for reuse as works of art, or for scientific experimentation, so that technicians like those at the De Bury Document Health Center can gain new knowledge that might one day save another book, bring relief to millions suffering cocking, or finally find a cure for mildew. Consider the cherished copy of Where the Wild Things Are, one’s favorite from childhood, or The Once and Future King, which dazzled one in secondary school—who would feel comfortable, when the time comes, of simply disposing of these books in the trash, consigning them to a mass grave defiled by food scraps and dog waste and soda cans? We hope all book lovers will offer their lifeless books a respectful passing, a deserved final resting place. Such treatment is among the book-fanciers necessary acts of devotion. Books are, after all, more than containers, more than information: they are our patient teachers, silent confidantes, cherished friends, and beloved companions.

1 comment:

  1. Bound in human skin???? Really, or am I missing some crucial reference here? I had no idea there were 'hospitals' for books--the closest I've come is in bringing a treasured book to a rare and used bookstore to be repaired. It was a gift from my British brother in law, from a relative's library, a copy of Letters on Demonology and Witchcraft, By Sir Walter Scott, Bart.(I have no idea what that last means), 1830. But the book needs to be repaired again; I haven't taken good enough care of it.

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