Slow Decay | From William Blades’ The Enemies of Books

“Dust and Neglect”


William Blades’

The Enemies of Books 

DUST upon Books to any extent points to neglect, and neglect means more or less slow Decay.

A well-gilt top to a book is a great preventive against damage by dust, while to leave books with rough tops and unprotected is sure to produce stains and dirty margins.

In olden times, when few persons had private collections of books, the collegiate and corporate libraries were of great use to students. The librarians’ duties were then no sinecure, and there was little opportunity for dust to find a resting-place. The Nineteenth Century and the Steam Press ushered in a new era. By degrees the libraries which were unendowed fell behind the age, and were consequently neglected. No new works found their way in, and the obsolete old books were left uncared for and unvisited. I have seen many old libraries, the doors of which remained unopened from week’s end to week’s end; where you inhaled the dust of paper-decay with every breath, and could not take up a book without sneezing; where old boxes, full of older literature, served as preserves for the bookworm, without even an autumn “battue” to thin the breed. Occasionally these libraries were (I speak of thirty years ago) put even to vile uses, such as would have shocked all ideas of propriety could our ancestors have foreseen their fate.

I recall vividly a bright summer morning many years ago, when, in search of Caxtons, I entered the inner quadrangle of a certain wealthy College in one of our learned Universities. The buildings around were charming in their grey tones and shady nooks. They had a noble history, too, and their scholarly sons were (and are) not unworthy successors of their ancestral renown. The sun shone warmly, and most of the casements were open. From one came curling a whiff of tobacco; from another the hum of conversation; from a third the tones of a piano. A couple of undergraduates sauntered on the shady side, arm in arm, with broken caps and torn gowns—proud insignia of their last term. The grey stone walls were covered with ivy, except where an old dial with its antiquated Latin inscription kept count of the sun’s ascent. The chapel on one side, only distinguishable from the “rooms” by the shape of its windows, seemed to keep watch over the morality of the foundation, just as the dining-hall opposite, from whence issued a white-aproned cook, did of its worldly prosperity. As you trod the level pavement, you passed comfortable—nay, dainty—apartments, where lace curtains at the windows, antimacassars on the chairs, the silver biscuit-box and the thin-stemmed wine-glass moderated academic toils. Gilt-backed books on gilded shelf or table caught the eye, and as you turned your glance from the luxurious interiors to the well-shorn lawn in the Quad., with its classic fountain also gilded by sunbeams, the mental vision saw plainly written over the whole “The Union of Luxury and Learning.”

Surely here, thought I, if anywhere, the old world literature will be valued and nursed with gracious care; so with a pleasing sense of the general congruity of all around me, I enquired for the rooms of the librarian. Nobody seemed to be quite sure of his name, or upon whom the bibliographical mantle had descended. His post, it seemed, was honorary and a sinecure, being imposed, as a rule, upon the youngest “Fellow.” No one cared for the appointment, and as a matter of course the keys of office had but distant acquaintance with the lock. At last I was rewarded with success, and politely, but mutely, conducted by the librarian into his kingdom of dust and silence. The dark portraits of past benefactors looked after us from their dusty old frames in dim astonishment as we passed, evidently wondering whether we meant “work”; book-decay—that peculiar flavour which haunts certain libraries—was heavy in the air, the floor was dusty, making the sunbeams as we passed bright with atoms; the shelves were dusty, the “stands” in the middle were thick with dust, the old leather table in the bow window, and the chairs on either side, were very dusty. Replying to a question, my conductor thought there was a manuscript catalogue of the Library somewhere, but thought, also, that it was not easy to find any books by it, and he knew not at the minute where to put his hand upon it. The Library, he said, was of little use now, as the Fellows had their own books and very seldom required 17th and 18th century editions, and no new books had been added to the collection for a long time.

We passed down a few steps into an inner library where piles of early folios were wasting away on the ground. Beneath an old ebony table were two long carved oak chests. I lifted the lid of one, and at the top was a once-white surplice covered with dust, and beneath was a mass of tracts—Commonwealth quartos, unbound—a prey to worms and decay. All was neglect. The outer door of this room, which was open, was nearly on a level with the Quadrangle; some coats, and trousers, and boots were upon the ebony table, and a “gyp” was brushing away at them just within the door—in wet weather he performed these functions entirely within the library—as innocent of the incongruity of his position as my guide himself. Oh! Richard of Bury, I sighed, for a sharp stone from your sling to pierce with indignant sarcasm the mental armour of these College dullards.

Happily, things are altered now, and the disgrace of such neglect no longer hangs on the College. Let us hope, in these days of revived respect for antiquity, no other College library is in a similar plight.

Not Englishmen alone are guilty, however, of such unloving treatment of their bibliographical treasures. The following is translated from an interesting work just published in Paris, (1) and shows how, even at this very time, and in the centre of the literary activity of France, books meet their fate.

 (1) Le luxe des Livres par L. Derome. 8vo, Paris, 1879.

M. Derome loquitur:—

“Let us now enter the communal library of some large provincial town. The interior has a lamentable appearance; dust and disorder have made it their home. It has a librarian, but he has the consideration of a porter only, and goes but once a week to see the state of the books committed to his care; they are in a bad state, piled in heaps and perishing in corners for want of attention and binding. At this present time (1879) more than one public library in Paris could be mentioned in which thousands of books are received annually, all of which will have disappeared in the course of 50 years or so for want of binding; there are rare books, impossible to replace, falling to pieces because no care is given to them, that is to say, they are left unbound, a prey to dust and the worm, and cannot be touched without dismemberment.”

“All history shows that this neglect belongs not to any particular age or nation. I extract the following story from Edmond Werdet’s Histoire du Livre.” (1)

 (1) "Histoire du Livre en France," par E. Werdet. 8vo, Paris, 1851.

“The Poet Boccaccio, when travelling in Apulia, was anxious to visit the celebrated Convent of Mount Cassin, especially to see its library, of which he had heard much. He accosted, with great courtesy, one of the monks whose countenance attracted him, and begged him to have the kindness to show him the library. ‘See for yourself,’ said the monk, brusquely, pointing at the same time to an old stone staircase, broken with age. Boccaccio hastily mounted in great joy at the prospect of a grand bibliographical treat. Soon he reached the room, which was without key or even door as protection to its treasures. What was his astonishment to see that the grass growing in the window-sills actually darkened the room, and that all the books and seats were an inch thick in dust. In utter astonishment he lifted one book after another. All were manuscripts of extreme antiquity, but all were dreadfully dilapidated. Many had lost whole sections which had been violently extracted, and in many all the blank margins of the vellum had been cut away. In fact, the mutilation was thorough.

“Grieved at seeing the work and the wisdom of so many illustrious men fallen into the hands of custodians so unworthy, Boccaccio descended with tears in his eyes. In the cloisters he met another monk, and enquired of him how the MSS. had become so mutilated. ‘Oh!’ he replied, ‘we are obliged, you know, to earn a few sous for our needs, so we cut away the blank margins of the manuscripts for writing upon, and make of them small books of devotion, which we sell to women and children.”

As a postscript to this story, Mr. Timmins, of Birmingham, informs me that the treasures of the Monte Cassino Library are better cared for now than in Boccaccio’s days, the worthy prior being proud of his valuable MSS. and very willing to show them. It will interest many readers to know that there is now a complete printing office, lithographic as well as typographic, at full work in one large room of the Monastery, where their wonderful MS. of Dante has been already reprinted, and where other fac-simile works are now in progress.

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