To Break a Book: Bibliophiles as Book Enemies

On Facebook, I recently came across a book that I never expected to see for sale outside of an auction or a fancy rare-book dealer. The book in question was one of the four volumes of the first edition of The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola, printed in 1689. The book’s author, Janez Vajkard (German spelling: Johann Weikhart) Valvasor, used to gaze at Slovenians from the 20-tolar banknote; nowadays we have the euro, but a bunch of places across Slovenia, ranging from libraries to restaurants and mountain cabins, continue to carry his name. It makes sense: Glory is an unprecedented magnum opus that summarized just about everything there was to know about the Slovenian heartland province of Carniola. A full set of the recent Slovenian translation will cost you several thousand euros, as will a well-preserved set of the 19th-century reprint. However, the seller of this first-edition volume admitted quite candidly that he wasn’t sure if his book was worth anything at all.

Where’s the catch? It’s true that the binding was almost gone, but that’s what we have bookbinders for. Even a rebound copy of a rare book can still be worth a lot of money. The real problem was that the book was extremely incomplete. Not only were all the fold-out panoramas and maps missing from it, but a bunch of pages with text were gone as well, so that you couldn’t even really call it a reading copy anymore. The title page was present, and you could still use the book to boast that you have a Valvasor first edition at home. However, for most bibliophiles, having such a miserable gutted volume on the shelf would simply be…sad.

Even at this poor level of preservation, the title page of Valvasor’s book looks fairly impressive.

So, how did this happen? Sometimes kids will play around with books and cut interesting pictures from them, or very unscrupulous adults will cut an entire page out to save time on making notes. In this case, though, there is no need for such an implausible explanation. The answer is quite simple: somebody cut out all the maps and the pages with illustrations in order to sell them separately to collectors. Even though the remaining book is almost worthless, selling the illustrations separately probably brought in more money than a complete book would have fetched. In most cases, destroying books is obviously a waste of money, but in this particular case, book destruction is literally a for-profit activity.

Most people who haven’t ventured far into book collecting, or who focus on modern editions, are barely aware that antiquarian bookstores often offer a selection of old maps apart from the books themselves. Nowadays, maps tend to be printed as separate objects, if they’re printed on paper at all. During the 20th century, if large maps or similar illustrations were included in books, they were usually tucked in at the back and could be removed without damaging the book itself. By contrast, early modern books usually had their maps bound inside, and it was less common for a map to be printed and sold separately. This means that most old prints which you see at rare book stores had once been cut out of a rare book.

Returning to the example of Valvasor, you can find a bunch of ads for his works online. Mostly, these aren’t ads for entire books, but for individual pages from them. This is quite logical: a single book has hundreds of illustrations, and when somebody cuts a book up, this will results in hundreds of online listings. So the question now is, who is buying all this? Do people genuinely think that these images were originally printed separately? Or, more likely, do they push moral quandaries aside when presented with the opportunity to own a (literal) fragment of history for a very accessible price?

Valvasor’s panorama of Ljubljana is especially sought after, since it’s by far the most detailed depiction of the town from before the 1800s.

1. The Arguments

The practice of cutting out illustrations from old volumes is called “breaking up” books, and it’s probably clear by now just how much I am against it. However, let’s start with the arguments in favour of this practice. Probably the main argument is that it allows ordinary people to own a piece of history that would otherwise be inaccessible to them. An entire Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the world’s most famous incunabula, costs as much as a small apartment. A single page from the book, however, might be had for 30 euros. Wouldn’t it be something to get a 15th century print under your Christmas tree?

To this, my answer is: there are already perfectly enough old books for everyone out there! (Even if you’re not rich!) Assuming you merely wish to own a historical artefact, you can easily find books from the early 1800s for a few euros apiece, or a 17th century book (without missing pages, of course) for perhaps 50 euros. Even incunabula aren’t that expensive, with some of them being sold for less than 1000 euros. People overestimate how expensive old books are. Yes, collecting Renaissance-era books is not cheap, because given that you are a collector, you will presumably want to buy more than just a couple of them. However, there are relatively few people out there who couldn’t afford to buy even a single rare book at some point in their life, if they wanted to.

(Also, there are already tons of broken-up books around the world. Even if you specifically want to own an image that used to be part of an old book, there is no need to continue breaking up books for this.)

The other argument is that if a book is already in poor condition, breaking it up can improve the condition of its parts. Imagine you have a book which is for some reason already missing a few maps, or perhaps the last page. You can either have an obviously incomplete copy, or break it up and thus acquire several “complete” maps and illustrations.  

My answer to this is that the less a book is mutilated, the easier it is to find the missing parts and fix it. In this sense, think of a book as the equivalent of a vintage car. Assuming a book is not very rare, it’s still plausible to hope to find one missing part, but once you’re lost 100 small parts, you’re increased the entropy so much that it’s just not possible anymore to bring them all back together in anyone’s lifetime. And if a book is very rare to begin with, then you definitely shouldn’t be cutting it up and scattering the parts against the winds!

Indeed, my main argument is that breaking up books irretrievably destroys their historical meaning and context. A rare book is an object with a story and a provenance; almost every book from before the 18th century has a signature somewhere, which can often be traced to some historical personality. There are also marginalia, notes, stamps from long-gone libraries, and sometimes entire essays about someone’s life, written at the back of a book, from back when paper was expensive and hard to come by. An illustration that is removed from such a book will have its history erased, becoming just another identical copy on the market. Technically, nothing is destroyed by cutting up a book into pieces, but the rump that stays behind will be shunned by most collectors, and is at considerable risk of eventually landing in the trash.

Anyway, all of these arguments were more or less based on the assumption that the books in question are not so well preserved, and not so very rare, either. Oftentimes, the people who break up books cannot even cling to such flimsy excuses.

2. Book Breaking in Practice

In William Blades’ classic work The Enemies of Books, he lists the eponymous enemies in order from least to most conscious of what they are doing. We begin with fire and water, move on to worms, then rats, little children, and up to ignorant owners. Close to the end of the list are bookbinders – never missing a chance to trim the margins of a rare book – and after them come…collectors. Apparently, each booklover has their own interpretation of what it means to love books, and in some cases, the love in question might be a very deadly one.

The patron saint of perverted booklovers is John Bagford, an 18th-century antiquarian who set it upon himself to compile a history of printing. With this in mind, he travelled across Britain, visiting libraries and bringing home a few title pages of old books from each visit, having torn them out as souvenirs. He then glued these pages into special scrapbooks, which might have served a modest educational purpose back when it wasn’t yet possible to photograph books or print reproductions from them. Nowadays, however, the scrapbooks merely serve as a testament to the author’s barbarity. I have no idea how Bagford pulled this off, given that even then, I imagine librarians weren’t exactly indifferent to people tearing out pages from library books. Perhaps Bagford was helped in his enterprise by having been one of the three founding members of the Society of Antiquaries. I imagine him as the Society’s equivalent of Salazar Slytherin – one whose dark influence still continues today.

There are no surviving full copies left of the tenth edition of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, but there remains a piece of a title page, which John Bagford cut out and pasted into one of his scrapbooks. Er…thanks?

If William Blades’ was the Victorian era’s foremost advocate of the book, this torch has now passed to Nicholas Basbanes. Basbanes is known primarily as a chronicler of the world of book auctions and loaded collectors, which he has described in A Gentle Madness. However, he is a passionate defender of both the valuable and the more “plebeian” sort of old books against all kinds of enemies. In his immensely readable book A Splendor of Letters, he raises his voice against modern-day biblioclasts, and so it’s from Basbanes’ book that I have lifted two stories of egregious abuses.

During his book-cutting spree, John Bagford seems to have been fairly indiscriminate in choice of victims. The latter-day Bagfords, by contrast, all seem to be after the same prey. A highly desired prey are the Birds of America, the ornithologist J. J. Audobon’s 1830s magnum opus which is considered to be one of the most beautiful books of all time. It’s also one of the most valuable, but that doesn’t prevent people from making even more money by breaking the book up. In the early 2000s, an intact four-volume set would cost you nearly 10 million dollars, while each of the 435 individual plates went for $3,000 to $150,000 – adding up to more than 10 million, of course.

Basbanes also presents some even more shocking numbers. At the time of his writing, about 125 of the original 200 sets were known to be preserved intact. This suggests that around 75 sets had already been broken up (books this valuable will seldom just disappear from the record). However, only around 15 complete copies were known to reside outside of institutions at that time. Assuming that libraries don’t cut up their books, this would imply that 4 out of 5 copies outside of an institution had already been broken up! You’d think a book as elite as Birds of America would be unlikely to ever come to grief – in reality, a Bible is safer at a Satanist meeting than Audobon’s book is in the hands of a book dealer.

There are no elephants in Birds of America, but the format of the book isn’t called “elephant folio” for nothing.

At least there will always be a few complete copies of Birds of America somewhere, residing in a library if perhaps not with a private collector. The same cannot be said anymore for the Shahnameh, one of the most beautiful Persian manuscripts of all time. The “Book of Kings” was written by the poet Ferdowsi in the 10th century and copied in several lavish manuscripts before printing (re)arrived to Persia in the 17th century. Perhaps the most famous is the volume produced in the 1500s for king Tahmāsp I, which is nowadays known as the “Houghton Shahnameh.” Basbanes compares this unfortunate moniker to the Parthenon marbles having been named after lord Elgin, who had them dismantled and shipped them off to Britain. Perhaps it would be a better comparison to say that calling it the “Houghton Shahnameh” is kind of like if we referred to the former Temple of Arthemis at Ephesus as “Herostratus’ Temple.”

As it happens, Houghton was the last in a long line of illustrious owners of the Shahnameh. He acquired the book in 1959, by which time his reputation as a rich collector and donator to major institutions had already been established. He bought the Shahnameh at an auction and loaned it out to Harvard University, with the understanding that their library would produce a facsimile edition, and with the unspoken implication that Houghton might end up turning the loan into a donation.

What happened next is rather confusing. Apparently, Harvard made very little progress with the facsimile edition, and in the meantime the IRS began to investigate Houghton’s practise of donating rare books to major libraries – since this resulted in tax breaks, and the amount of tax reduction was usually based on Houghton’s own generous valuation of the donated books, his donations tended to effect his overall financial status quite favourably. Frustrated with both of these setbacks, Houghton withdrew the Shahnameh from Harvard and did what Basbanes interprets as a “let me show you what my books are really worth” gesture: he broke it up into individual plates and first donated part of them to the New York Metropolitan Museum. The museum had not expected this at all, so regardless of what they might have thought about Houghton’s decision, they didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth.

At that point, there was still hope that the leaves of the Shahnameh might remain together, but Houghton quickly dashed these hopes by putting a few of the leaves up for auction. They fetched very high prices, which Houghton gladly used as a retroactive justification of the tax break he had got for the donation to the Met. Finally, the remaining plates were offered to the new Iranian Islamic government, which was eager to have at least part of a national treasure repatriated, and gladly traded them for a piece of modern art which used to belong to the recently deposed Shah.

Sometime after all of this transpired, Harvard finally shook itself out of its slumber and brought out a luxurious facsimile edition of the “Houghton Shahnameh.” By then, the facsimile was uniquely valuable, since it represented a book which did not exist anymore, at least not as a single object. In order not to anger their almost-donator, the compilers of the introduction carefully sidestepped the issue of the book’s destruction. Despite its technical proficiency and detailed scholarship, this gives the book a rather Soviet tinge – one of those self-censored texts that only make sense if one reads them between the lines.

Priced at $2000 (in 1981 dollars!), the facsimile edition of “The Houghton Shahnameh” was almost as inaccesible as the original.

In the first story I’ve presented, individual leaves were removed from books; in the second story, dozens of leaves at once; in the third one, all the leaves. The logical conclusion would be to go even further and cut up even individual leaves into pieces. Needless to say, this too has been done. A British handbag manufacturer offers special, £2500-apiece products which distinguish themselves from ordinary handbags by containing a small piece of an original letter by Charles Dickens. I’ve heard of some crazy shit, but this one left even me stunned.

In this case, nobody can even pretend anymore that there is some kind of interest to collectors being served. The closest analogy I can think of are the relics of saints that were such a prominent feature of medieval Catholicism. The bones of a saint were broken up and scattered across European churches to help the saints with interceding in their supplicants’ lives. What is Dickens protecting his wearers against? Writer’s block?

At least the author of Oliver Twist and Great Expectations was a peaceful soul and probably wouldn’t bother to haunt whoever happens to wear the remains of his manuscripts. The same company also produces handbags containing vandalized bits of handwriting by Queen Victoria and by King Frederick William III of Prussia, among others. As I recall, Prussian monarchs were never exactly famous for their ability to remain indifferent to insults…

Anyway, whoever ends up compiling the next edition of Dickens’ collected works might encounter some awkward moments when they’ll have to update the present locations of our writer’s manuscripts. We’re all used to reading that a certain historically important document was “lost during WWII” or “destroyed in a fire,” but how exactly do you phrase that a manuscript has been cut up and turned into handbags?

Original handwriting by Charles Dickens from the year 1857“…the way they phrased it, it almost sounds like Dickens scribbled a few words onto a piece of paper specifically for this handbag. I wonder if the average buyer thinks this as well?


Given how few people seem to be opposed to “book art,” which involves cutting up perfectly good old books and turning them into collages and statues (compared to which John Bagford’s title-page-scrapbooks seem positively benign), I have little hope that book-breaking will become any less popular during our lifetimes. If anything, it might become even commoner. Increasingly few people seem to be interested in collecting books, just as fewer and fewer still read them (at least on paper); on the other hand, the market for art doesn’t seem to be in any danger of decline. The combination of these two trends might lead increasingly more people to “liberate” works of art from their book-prison, hang them up on a wall, and discard the useless books themselves…

For more conscientious booklovers, the question remains, what to do with the cut-outs already in our possession? This is the same problem faced by collectors of archaeological material: you can have it displayed in your living room, but then you need to constantly explain that no, these swords weren’t dug up illegally, or looted from some museum, they had been in your family for generations… Anyway, my suggestion is to keep displaying these maps and foldouts (if perhaps in some corner which encounters fewer visitors). After all, you’re honouring the illustrators, mapmakers, and printers, not the people who cut these books up. At the same time, however, do exercise caution when buying cut-out material. Make sure not to feed the wolves.


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