A Second-Generation Bookseller's View of Bookbreaking
Copyright © 2005 Susan Netzorg Halas - All Rights
Reserved (see below for details)
Earlier this year we published essays by Martin Murphy railing against
Bookbreaking and by Gabriel Austin, in favour of the
act. Here we present the view of a second generation bookseller. As
for Books at Star Dot Star, we're still of two minds on the subject and are re-evaluating our position. We'd be
happy to hear your view on the subject which you can e-mail to us here.
By Way of Preface
My parents were both book dealers for more than 50 years in the pre-Internet
antiquarian, scholarly and OP trade. For the record I am now 62 years old and have been working in the book biz
since I could sit upright and hold a pencil which is just about the time my folks started their shop.
Much of what I know about books I learned from my Dad, MJ (Jock) Netzorg who was a noted antiquarian specialist,
scholar and collector and co-owner of the Cellar Book Shop in Detroit, Michigan. I learned it by going with him
on his buying expeditions from the time I was a little child in the 1940s until he died in the mid 90s. I also
learned it from my Mom who was concerned about things like invoices, packing, going to the post office, issuing
catalogs and dealing with collectors and libraries.
My father was an excellent teacher. He never met a distressed, but worthy tome, he didn't like.
My dad was an expert in buying good books in bad condition, sometimes falling apart, sometimes without covers,
sometimes scribbled or stained or water damaged or wormed, and in the fullness of time those defects became a lot
less important - especially if the books had wonderful maps or plates or pioneering science, anthropology, or exploration,
all highlights of the 19th century.
My Dad's Take on the Subject
There's always been quite a bit of discussion about breaking books, so here for the record is his take on things.
My dad wasn't big on breaking, but he did think there was a difference between ripping the plates out of a book
or magazine and taking it apart carefully and saving it in sections so it could be useful to a wide variety people
with a variety of tastes and interests. So while you might not want a whole bound volume of Appletons or Harpers or The
Bookman, or National
Geo, you might very well want that one page with the ad for Darwin's
Origin of the Species,
or the color plates by Maxfield Parrish, or the short story by Joseph Conrad, or the picture article of the Pan
American Clipper on it's first trans-Pacific flight .
He also was one of several of the prior generation who pointed out to me that the invention of "binding"
was a relatively recent development. This was amply confirmed later in my life when I got more deeply into 18th
century prints and maps and learned that for the longest time many important works were issued as loose sheets.
Especially those with plates and maps.
That's because people with enough money to buy these usually expensive works had their own ideas about how they
should be put together. Some of them followed the printers instructions on placement of the plates and maps, but
some of them didn't and kept them loose to hang in the old baronial digs or bind (or not bind) as the fancy suited
So before you wring your hands over the evil book breakers just remember that most of the older good stuff really
started life unbound -- text and plates were printed on separate presses by different methods and only came together
at the binders and only because it was cheaper to make one volume than to bind the text and box the plates (the
really right way to do it according to the truly snooty end of the antiquarian trade).
And Now to the 2nd Half of the 19th Century
Now -- when we come to the second half of the 19th century -- you are often
doing the book a favor by taking it apart, because by the mid-late 19th century the paper used in making books
changed from rag based to wood pulp based and the wood pulp paper is so heavily acidic that it often ate (or is
right this second eating) through the plates and everything else it touches, also the printing ink was/is so thick
and black that it frequently offsets onto everything it touches, that's when the whole sheet isn't crumbling in
And while I wouldn't advise taking stuff apart in each and every case, there
are definitely some instances you are doing yourself, the book and the collecting public a favor by taking it carefully
apart. Please notice the word CAREFULLY.
If you find any of this useful -- remember it comes straight from my dad, the one and only MJ (Jock) Netzorg, the
great teacher, scholar, dealer and collector, the highly opinionated "expert at large" who had the maddening
ability to be right about 99 percent of the time.
Some of you in the past have asked permission to forward or post this info
to others, permission granted.
Susan Netzorg Halas
Prints Pacific, LTD
1939A Vineyard Street
Wailuku, Maui, HI 96793
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