Wednesday, July 25, 2012

A Binding Proposal

Finding topics for weekly blog posts should not be much of a problem in a country in which political folly is continuous, public turpitude habitual, and really sensational gun slaughter reliably occasional.  The trick is to find a topic that one would actually enjoy writing about.  Such a topic has occurred to me, but I am not sure it has reader appeal, also known as “legs”.  So I turned to my son Richard for advice.  Some of you will perhaps remember that Richard’s blog “A Brooklynite on the Ice”, or “Antarcticiana,” inspired me to begin in the first place, a hundred and fifty-seven essays ago.  In recent weeks “Antarcticiana” has been a little thin—a circumstance explained by the fact that its bloguiste is quite busy preparing to get married.  But he was able to find a little time to give me some advice.

            His encouragement to proceed with my proposed topic was emphatic though oblique.  He actually didn’t have much interest in the topic one way or the other.  But that was his point.  In the kindest possible way he explained to me the vulgar error of thinking that any blog could actually be  written for an audience.  Clearly, it is written for the bloguiste.

The author, John Milton (Francis Hayman pinxit)

            In the last decades of my active career I spun various fantasies about how I would spend my time in retirement.  I have spent it in fact writing books, hanging out with my grandkids, travelling to pleasant places, and watching several seasons’ episodes of “Breaking Bad”; but I had various other schemes in imagination.  One of them was that I could return with a focused application to some amateur interests in the graphic arts—letterpress printing and book-binding in particular.  With this vague goal in mind I bought up over the years on eBay, in the good old days when it was still interesting, a certain number of noble but humiliated old books, volumes rendered cheap because of their sad physical condition.  I would set up a retirement book hospital in which I might nurse them back to health.  I carefully stored them in crates, put them into the deep storage of the press’s lumber room, and generally forgot about them.

The editor, the Rt. Rev Thomas Newton

            Well, this summer, as regular readers will know, I set out on some deep cleaning of the pressroom—an initiative that remains “in progress” as I write.  Part of the progress was to get down to a fairly early archaeological level in the lumber room.  There I re-discovered some of the crates of old books alluded to above.  An impulse stirred within my breast; I feel moved to try to rescue at least a few of them.  It then occurred to me that I might write a little about it as I did it, since the unusually cultivated readers of “Gladly Lerne” were bound to be fascinated by the project.  It was this irrelevance that was gently exposed by my son Rich.  All that matters is that I am fascinated by it.

The original owner (Sir John Ingilby)

            The first volumes I encountered—abusively misplaced among a crate of reglet—are a once famous edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost.  Specifically they are the two volumes of the seventh edition (1770) of the great “Thomas Newton’s Milton”, the first edition of which appeared in 1749.  Like most editions of Newton’s work, this one is beautifully printed.  The text of the poem is generously leaded for easy reading, though it generally takes up only about a third of the lavishly and learnedly annotated pages.   The beautiful old full calf binding is ruinous.  Each volume has a detached front board and a dangling back one.  The boards look pretty good, but the backs of both volumes are seriously decayed, particularly that of the second.  The text block of the second volume is broken through about midway (between pages 306 and 307, near the end of Book Ten).  I am now proposing to dismantle the books, separate and repair the signatures, resew them on tapes (they are now on cords), and rebind them in leather.  The backs must be scrapped entirely.  It is just possible that I can save and reuse the original calf boards.  We’ll have to see.  Not everybody knows how books were made, and the old techniques are intrinsically interesting.  So I plan now and again to post an illustrated essay showing the evolving process which, with luck, I might complete in a leisurely fashion over a year.

The challenge (volume 2)

            There are plenty of rich incidental topics here: Milton, Paradise Lost, the learned editor Thomas Newton, George Vertue (the engraver of the portrait in the first volume),  Hayman and Müller (the painter and engraver, respectively, of the splendid illustrations), Sir John Ingilby (the original owner of the books).  Occasional posts concerning them are sure to fascinate you me.  I can express the same hope that Milton had for his epic: that I fit audience find, though few.

Such prohibitions bind not. But if death
Binds us with after-bands, what profits then
Our inward freedom? (Paradise Lost, IX, 760-762)