Sunday, November 10, 2013

Preservation of Books or Texts?

  I have recently resigned from a charity volunteer position which involved selling secondhand books for fundraising for a valuable cause. Never mind why. Charities do occasionally go through phases of losing their sense of direction. Suffice to say I might have a bit more time for medieval books and paleography now, with fewer big gaps between postings. And yes, I have found another good cause to devote some time to, but which might not eat up my whole life.
  The secondhand books are all donated by the public and sold at several huge bookfairs each year. The time in between was filled with sorting, pricing, processing and packing for the next blockbuster. People give the charity a helluva lot of books. Why? Because they are getting rid of them. They are downsizing, their parents have died, their kids have left home, they have bought e-readers or some other reason. Secondhand book dealers are becoming progressively more rare, don't want to buy big collections and their only alternative is to send the lot to paper recycling.

  The oversupply means that a significant proportion of the books end up in paper recycling anyway. Sometimes they are in ratty condition and frequently they are titles which appear in such numbers that they could not possibly all be sold at the bookfairs. The recycling hopper was at one time euphemistically referred to as the Dan Brown file. Sometimes there are strange old books that nobody wants to buy and you wonder if they should be preserved as historical curiosities.
  Now that so many medieval manuscript books in public collections are appearing in facsimile on the internet, interested folks are becoming aware of just how many of these survive. Of course, we know there have been massive losses as well. Fire, flood and vermin, not to mention deliberate destruction in order to replace dated texts with ones that were deemed to be more correct, all chomped up medieval libraries. Medieval monks and scholars made decisions about preservation and disposal as well.
  Every manuscript book which survives, however, is unique, not only in the decoration and presentation, but in the text. Apart from in liturgical books, the concept of the written content was still rooted in the oral tradition, with change and evolution of the text occurring all the time. This has made lifetime careers for some academics.
  With printed books, every example from a given edition is identical, and some books, whether modern bestsellers or older classics, have been printed in gazillions of copies over the years. There is a question of how much we should worry about the destruction of these identical industrial artifacts. Is it important to preserve the physical objects, or should we only worry about conserving the texts? There is a collectors' market which gets all excited and splashes money about for rare editions, but is this a reader's interest or merely an investor's ploy?
  The book will never die. There is too much pleasure in grabbing a favourite off the shelf and thumbing through it. But when I depart for the great library in the sky, somebody will sort through my eccentric collection and select what to keep and what to dump. Most unscientific. And you never know, one day Sotheby's might just sell the last ratty paperback copy of The Da Vinci Code.

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