Servants and Children Who Cause Damage to Books

By William Blades.

READER! are you married?  Have you offspring, boys especially I mean, say between six and twelve years of age?  Have you also a literary workshop, supplied with choice tools, some for use, some for ornament, where you pass pleasant hours? and is— ah! there’s the rub!--is there a special hand-maid, whose special duty it is to keep your den daily dusted and in order?  Plead you guilty to these indictments? then am I sure of a sympathetic co-sufferer.

Dust! it is all a delusion.  It is not the dust that makes women anxious to invade the inmost recesses of your Sanctum— it is an ingrained curiosity.  And this feminine weakness, which dates from Eve, is a common motive in the stories of our oldest literature and Folk-lore. What made Fatima so anxious to know the contents of the room forbidden her by Bluebeard?  It was positively nothing to her, and its contents caused not the slightest annoyance to anybody.  That story has a bad moral, and it would, in many ways, have been more satisfactory had the heroine been left to take her place in the blood-stained chamber, side by side with her peccant predecessors.  Why need the women-folk (God forgive me!) bother themselves about the inside of a man’s library, and whether it wants dusting or not?  My boys’ playroom, in which is a carpenter’s bench, a lathe, and no end of litter, is never tidied—perhaps it can’t be, or perhaps their youthful vigour won’t stand it—but my workroom must needs be dusted daily, with the delusive promise that each book and paper shall be replaced exactly where it was.  The damage done by such continued treatment is incalculable.  At certain times these observances are kept more religiously than others; but especially should the book-lover, married or single, beware of the Ides of March.  So soon as February is dead and gone, a feeling of unrest seizes the housewife’s mind.  This increases day by day, and becomes dominant towards the middle of the month, about which period sundry hints are thrown out as to whether you are likely to be absent for a day or two.  Beware! the fever called “Spring Clean” is on, and unless you stand firm, you will rue it.  Go away, if the Fates so will, but take the key of your own domain with you.

Do not misunderstand.  Not for a moment would I advocate dust and dirt; they are enemies, and should be routed; but let the necessary routing be done under your own eye.  Explain where caution must be used, and in what cases tenderness is a virtue; and 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.  Books MUST now and then be taken clean out of their shelves, but they should be tended lovingly and with judgment.  If the dusting can be done just outside the room so much the better.  The books removed, the shelf should be lifted quite out of its bearings, cleansed and wiped, and then each volume should be taken separately, and gently rubbed on back and sides with a soft cloth.  In returning the volumes to their places, notice should be taken of the binding, and especially when the books are in whole calf or morocco care should be taken not to let them rub together.  The best bound books are soonest injured, and quickly deteriorate in bad company.  Certain volumes, indeed, have evil tempers, and will scratch the faces of all their neighbours who are too familiar with them.  Such are books with metal clasps and rivets on their edges; and such, again, are those abominable old rascals, chiefly born in the fifteenth century, who are proud of being dressed in REAL boards with brass corners, and pass their lives with fearful knobs and metal bosses, mostly five in number, firmly fixed on one of their sides.  If the tendencies of such ruffians are not curbed, they will do as much mischief to their gentle neighbours as when a “collie” worries the sheep.  These evil results may always be minimized by placing a piece of millboard between the culprit and his victim.  I have seen lovely bindings sadly marked by such uncanny neighbours.

When your books are being “dusted,” don’t impute too much common sense to your assistants; take their ignorance for granted, and tell them at once never to lift any book by one of its covers; that treatment is sure to strain the back, and ten to one the weight will be at the same time miscalculated, and the volume will fall.  Your female “help,” too, dearly loves a good tall pile to work at and, as a rule, her notions of the centre of gravity are not accurate, leading often to a general downfall, and the damage of many a corner.  Again, if not supervised and instructed, she is very apt to rub the dust into, instead of off, the edges.  Each volume should be held tightly, so as to prevent the leaves from gaping, and then wiped from the back to the fore-edge. A soft brush will be found useful if there is much dust.  The whole exterior should also be rubbed with a soft cloth, and then the covers should be opened and the hinges of the binding examined; for mildew WILL assert itself both inside and outside certain books, and that most pertinaciously.  It has unaccountable likes and dislikes.  Some bindings seem positively to invite damp, and mildew will attack these when no other books on the same shelf show any signs of it.  When discovered, carefully wipe it away, and then let the book remain a few days standing open, in the driest and airiest spot you can select.  Great care should be taken not to let grit, such as blows in at the open window from many a dusty road, be upon your duster, or you will probably find fine scratches, like an outline map of Europe, all over your smooth calf, by which your heart and eye, as well as your book, will be wounded.

“Helps” are very apt to fill the shelves too tightly, so that to extract a book you have to use force, often to the injury of the top-bands.  Beware of this mistake.  It frequently occurs through not noticing that one small book is purposely placed at each end of the shelf, beneath the movable shelf-supports, thus not only saving space, but preventing the injury which a book shelf-high would be sure to receive from uneven pressure.

After all, the best guide in these, as in many other matters, is “common sense,” a quality which in olden times must have been much more “common” than in these days, else the phrase would never have become rooted in our common tongue.

Children, with all their innocence, are often guilty of book-murder. I must confess to having once taken down “Humphrey’s History of Writing,” which contains many brightly-coloured plates, to amuse a sick daughter.  The object was certainly gained, but the consequences of so bad a precedent were disastrous.  That copy (which, I am glad to say, was easily re-placed), notwithstanding great care on my part, became soiled and torn, and at last was given up to Nursery martyrdom.  Can I regret it? surely not, for, although bibliographically sinful, who can weigh the amount of real pleasure received, and actual pain ignored, by the patient in the contemplation of those beautifully-blended colours?

A neighbour of mine some few years ago suffered severely from a propensity, apparently irresistible, in one of his daughters to tear his library books.  She was six years old, and would go quietly to a shelf and take down a book or two, and having torn a dozen leaves or so down the middle, would replace the volumes, fragments and all, in their places, the damage being undiscovered until the books were wanted for use.  Reprimand, expostulation and even punishment were of no avail; but a single “whipping” effected a cure.

Boys, however, are by far more destructive than girls, and have, naturally, no reverence for age, whether in man or books.  Who does not fear a schoolboy with his first pocket-knife?

As Wordsworth did not say:--

“You may trace him oft
By scars which his activity has left
Upon our shelves and volumes. * * *

He who with pocket-knife will cut the edge
Of luckless panel or of prominent book,
Detaching with a stroke a label here, a back-band there.”

Excursion III, 83.

Pleased, too, are they, if, with mouths full of candy, and sticky fingers, they can pull in and out the books on your bottom shelves, little knowing the damage and pain they will cause.  One would fain cry out, calling on the Shade of Horace to pardon the false quantity—

“Magna movet stomacho fastidia, si puer unctis Tractavit volumen manibus.”  Sat. IV.

What boys CAN do may be gathered from the following true story, sent me by a correspondent who was the immediate sufferer:--

One summer day he met in town an acquaintance who for many years had been abroad; and finding his appetite for old books as keen as ever, invited him home to have a mental feed upon “fifteeners” and other bibliographical dainties, preliminary to the coarser pleasures enjoyed at the dinner-table. The “home” was an old mansion in the outskirts of London, whose very architecture was suggestive of black-letter and sheep-skin. The weather, alas! was rainy, and, as they approached the house, loud peals of laughter reached their ears.  The children were keeping a birthday with a few young friends.  The damp forbad all outdoor play, and, having been left too much to their own devices, they had invaded the library.  It was just after the Battle of Balaclava, and the heroism of the combatants on that hard-fought field was in everybody’s mouth.  So the mischievous young imps divided themselves into two opposing camps—

Britons and Russians. The Russian division was just inside the door, behind ramparts formed of old folios and quartos taken from the bottom shelves and piled to the height of about four feet.  It was a wall of old fathers, fifteenth century chronicles, county histories, Chaucer, Lydgate, and such like.  Some few yards off were the Britishers, provided with heaps of small books as missiles, with which they kept up a skirmishing cannonade against the foe.  Imagine the tableau!  Two elderly gentlemen enter hurriedly, paterfamilias receiving, quite unintentionally, the first edition of “Paradise Lost” in the pit of his stomach, his friend narrowly escaping a closer personal acquaintance with a quarto Hamlet than he had ever had before.  Finale:  great outburst of wrath, and rapid retreat of the combatants, many wounded (volumes) being left on the field.


This is taken from The Enemies of Books.



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