An argument against Bookbreaking
Copyright © 2005 Martin Murphy PhD - All Rights Reserved
In a recent debate on a bibliophiles' discussion list, a debate has been raging on that very subject. One of the best defences against the activity was the following (published by permission of the author):
A special reason for a trip
At Trinity College, Dublin, where the Book of Kells is displayed, the pages of the manuscript are turned regularly, both to display its riches and to reduce exposure of the individual leaves. Everyone seems to be quite satisfied with that arrangement.
Would anyone consider defending a proposal to dismember that book and sell the individual leaves? We should be forever grateful that societyís ďarbiters of cultural heritageĒ didnít get the idea centuries ago. As for my being denied easy access to a great work of art, Iíll just make that book a special reason for a trip to Dublin, rather than petition Bill Gates to buy it and bring it to the USA.
The story about Houghton involves high-handed pressures from the Internal Revenue Service and stupidly naïve ideas about artefact valuation. Of course the individual leaves of an illuminated book will add up to a value much greater than the intact book. Thatís exactly what motivates book breakers.
If the IRS told you to burn your house down to see if its replacement value agreed with the insurance appraisal, would you do it? Is there anyone out there that really wants to defend the IRS in matters of cultural heritage, or Houghtonís weak-kneed acquiescence to that agency?
The need for practical voices
Why havenít we heard the practical voice of curators and preservationists? If you break a book apart and put all of the leaves on permanent display, you increase a hundred-fold the rate of deterioration and the risk of damage, without commensurate benefit. That is in fact the pragmatic reason why Chinese collectors keep their scrolls rolled up when not being viewed.
One of the most distressing things I ever saw in the inventory of a bookseller
was a childís scrapbook filled with neatly excised capitals, marginalia, and miniatures from countless illuminated
manuscripts and incunabula. I can picture (although only with great pain) a bored twelve year old sitting in the
Earl of Balderdashís library, casually cutting out the pretty pictures. After centuries of Cromwells, Ruskins,
and idle twelve-year-olds (not to mention renaissance book binders)
The proposition that Houghton made valuable philanthropic contributions is no defense of this particular action. In the end, it was his decision to break the book, and the decision was apparently driven mainly by money, not cultural high-mindedness.
The Houghton story was the kick-off point for this debate. The Shanameh
Reportedly Houghton wanted to present the manuscript to the Metropolitan Museum. But the IRS, this debater says, questioned the valuation and insisted on some manner of better determining it, including auctioning some of the leaves. And there the debate really got hot.