The Enemies of Books by William Blades

While searching for treasures in Widener’s stacks recently, I found a beautiful 1896 edition of William Blade’s classical book on book collecting and book maintenance: The Enemies of Books. The title and driving metaphor of the book won me over right away. Books seem like inert and relatively unobjectionable objects. Many people dislike certain books or do not care for books in general but who could be the enemies of books in general?

Some people may not like books but William Blades is not one of these people. Blades loves books (Caxtons in particular) and has, to say the least, a long list of ways that he wants to see books treated. Anything that violates Blade’s sensibilities becomes the enemy of William Blades. Blades is happy happy to speak for books in general.

Enemies enumerated include both individuals like the "Bagford the Biblioclast", behaviors, occupations, nature, states of beings, children, and most women. There are chapters on fire, water, gas and heat, dust and neglect, ignorance and bigotry, the bookworm, other vermin, bookbinders, collectors, and servants and children.

The book contains something for almost everyone. Blades opens a wonderfully out-of-date section on the danger of gas lighting in libraries stating that, "unfortunately, I can speak from experience on the dire effect of gas in a confined space." Who can’t? Nowhere though, is Blades as worked up as when he discusses the evils done by bookbinders who trim (and who frequently overtrim) the margins of books while binding or rebinding them. Blades explains:

Dante, in his "Inferno," deals out to the lost souls various tortures suited with dramatic fitness to the past crimes of the victims, and had I to execute judgment on the criminal binders of certain precious volumes I have seen, where the untouched maiden sheets untrusted to their care have, by barbarous treatment, lost dignity, beauty, and values, I would collect paper shavings so ruthlessly shorn off, and roast the perpetrator of the outrage over their slow combustion. In olden times, before men had learned to value the relics of our printers, there was some excuse for the sins of a binder who erred from ignorance which has general; but in these times, when the historical and antiquarian values of books is freely acknowledged, no quarter should be granted to a careless culprit.

When collectors’ turns comes up, Blades rants for pages on the evils of collectors who rip out the title pages or colophons of otherwise good books to build large bibliographic collections.

As Mika was looking through the book, the title page fell from the old and rather fragile binding. It seems that we may have a candidate for a new addition to the book. On the other hand, perhaps we have a new distinction: the enemy of The Enemies of Books.

Author: Benjamin Mako Hill

Rebel with rather too many causes. And your host!

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