The Enemies of Books

By George Oates

Destruction of Books at Ephesus

I learned a new word today: biblioclast, or destroyer of books. Found it on the frontispiece of The Enemies of Books by William Blades.

As you can see from its Table of Contents — Fire, Water, Gas and Heat, Dust and Neglect, Ignorance, The Bookworm, Other Vermin, Bookbinders, Collectors & Servants and Children — the author, William Blades, has spotted elemental, entomological and occupational enemies, even as far back as 1880.

John Bagford, “shoemaker and biblioclast,” appears in the chapter about Collectors. He apparently “went about the country, from library to library, tearing away title pages from rare books of all sizes,” intent on creating a key to the history of printing, but detaching key bibliographic information from parent works. You can see glimpses of The Bagford Fragments on the British Library’s website.

It was the conclusion, “A Reverence for Old Books,” that got me though:

It is a great pity that there should be so many distinct enemies at work for the destruction of literature, and that they should so often be allowed to work out their sad end. Looked at rightly, the possession of any old book is a sacred trust, which a conscientious owner or guardian would as soon think of ignoring as a parent would of neglecting his child. An old book, whatever its subjects or merits, is truly a portion of [inter]national history; we may imitate it and print it in facsimile, but we can never exactly reproduce it; and as an historical document it should be carefully preserved.

I do not envy any man that absence of sentiment which makes some people careless of the memorials of their ancestors, and whose blood can be warmed up only by talking of horses or the price of hops. To them solitude means ennui and anybody’s company is preferable to their own. What an immense amount of calm enjoyment and mental renovation do such men miss. Even a millionaire will add a hundred per cent to his daily pleasures if he becomes a bibliophile; while the man of business with a taste for books, who through the day has struggled in the battle of life with all its irritating rebuffs and anxieties, what a blessed season of pleasurable repose opens upon him as he enters his sanctum, where every article wafts to him a welcome, and every book is a personal friend.

It seems with every day I gently uncover voices of bibliophilic history. I’m curious about what a new edition of this book might contain today.

One Response to “The Enemies of Books”

  1. John says:

    Or how about the related term, ‘biblioclasm’, a term I ran across in Matthew Battles ‘Library: An Unquiet History’. His book is virtually a history of book burnings and destruction, sometimes having unexpected positive effects for libraries. Biblioclasm. Love that word.