Mind over Medium

Art, Literature, and Pseudo-Science

Month: April, 2012

For the Love of Books: My Sacrificial Book

I was perusing the MOST AWESOME ANTIQUE STORE IN THE WORLD (located north of El Paso, TX), when I found the front cover and first 4 pages of an 1841 classical dictionary.

It awakened the book-hungry librarian in my soul and I was determined to find the rest of it–there had to be more! After all, there was a clearly marked $9 price on the last ripped page. Even a greedy antique store owner is not crazy enough to charge $9 for the first four pages of a mythology dictionary (then again, who knows?). THE MOST AWESOME ANTIQUE STORE IN THE WORLD is huge– over 11,000 sq. ft., plus outside and whatever is hanging from the ceiling– so I was certain the rest of the dictionary had to be around somewhere, even if it took forever to find it. It took another hour of searching to find it, but I finally dug it out of a box about a yard where I’d found the cover. Sometimes things like to hide from me in plain sight.

Yes, it's lying on both covers...:(

Man-oh-man is it in rough shape! For those of you unfamiliar with the Chihuahuan Desert, it’s dry. Very dry. In fact, the day I found this dictionary, the air was filled with dust and howling wind. You couldn’t see the mountains, or even the sun for that matter. It’s crispy and crunchy like a cracker everywhere you go, which you know is bad for your healthy, living skin. Now, imagine what that dry, sizzling heat does to 170-year-old dead cow/pig/sheep skin. It’s not pretty:

The book, however, is not yet a total loss! It was obviously a very pricy book when it was first published, evidenced by the very fine leather-on-board binding and a prettily printed page edge in a turquoise pebble pattern.

The inside is crammed full of text and more text and more text. If you want to know about the right toe of Palaemon, a son of Priam, this is your tome! And a true tome it is; weighing in at over 4 pounds, measuring an impressive 3.5 inches thick.

Both covers are off and it isn’t really safe to have it in any position other than flat right now. Others have attempted to conserve it, visible as a few ill-thought pieces of tape and an earlier, more professional addition of leather strips at the spine hinges. These, however, all failed and now both covers float freely, doing more harm than good when it comes to protecting what remains of the inside. The spine itself is intact, but the leather cover  flakes and cracks with the slightest movement. Even just taking these pictures put an almost unbearable strain on the cover, despite my best efforts at being gentle. However, all is not lost! This poor tome, left to become dust in a bone-dry corner of THE MOST AWESOME ANTIQUE STORE IN THE WORLD, offers the perfect opportunity to explore the world of book restoration. The paper and glue are all pretty well intact, aside from the ripped front leaves, with no mold or water damage. The book’s most troublesome condition issue lies in the leather. The leather is suffering from “red rot,” a condition in which the tannic acid used to tan the leather all those years ago has begun to eat away at the leather, reducing it to a felty, powder-covered mess.

Red Rot is the Black Death of the book world.

 The profusion of orange dust on my fingers bears witness to the severity of this dictionary’s case of red rot. The powder literally leaves a dust print of the book wherever it is laid. It’s like having flour on your hands after making cookies. One swipe on your black pants and poof! Everyone can tell what you’ve been doing. I came up to the counter holding the dictionary and a few other items piled in my arms. I came out of the store with a square print of orange dust right smack in the middle of my chest! I thought the powder-dry binding was beyond hope, but a little bit of internet research lead me to a product called Cellugel. Cellugel is a book archival preservative that promises to help treat red rot without further damaging the book. It’s kind of like Oil of Olay for books: it promises to magically reverse wrinkles, but let’s face it, no matter how much you slather on cream, your face is eventually going to shrivel up. Like deep wrinkles, red rot is irreversible (after all, the leather is dead skin, so it can’t heal by producing new cells), but it can be controlled and I really want to try Cellugel out on my sad classical dictionary!

Click to visit Zombie Manuscript Girl. She's cool.

A jar of the stuff is expensive, $35 with shipping, but it’s an adventure! If it kills the covers of the dictionary, the tome will be no worse off than it originally is, but if it works…hello happier classical dictionary! Then it will be on to re-attaching the covers and stabilizing the spine. I think this dictionary could be one of the best books I’ve gotten so far since it offers me the opportunity to have a sacrificial book: one I can explore book preservation with. Most book conservation and preservation schools recommend having this sort of book around to learn basic techniques on before moving on to more difficult and valuable books. I am very interested in the field, so I want to try it out. It might make a good career or at least a viable, fascinating side business!


A Viable Way to Deter Accidental Pen Kleptos

I work at a college. This means that there are (in theory) a lot of pens floating about to fill out  mounds of paperwork, do homework, and jot down fast notes with. The computer has not quite yet replaced good ol’ pen and paper around here! But where there is a need, there is always the shadow of hunger, waiting to gobble up unsuspecting office supplies, luring them away with candy and the promise of true love. I warn you, fair reader, what follows is a dark and hideous tale of how my pens were stolen from me.

I run a tidy little office…well, tidy enough, and I am always grabbing pens and highlighters to help my students take notes, revise one of their essays, or write down passwords and phone numbers so the next time our lab computers crash they won’t panic. To satiate this appetite for pens, Secretary/Tutor Tracie had ordered a lovely box of company pens for me. There were forty of the little suckers in the box, more than enough!

Pictured: Not my pens

A generous gift of handmade pottery from my boss kept my bevy of ball-tipped advertisements neatly stowed in my cabinet. I thought they were safe. I thought that for certain 40 pens would be enough to make up for my occasional absentmindedness or unfortunate breakage for a semester. Oh, how I was wrong!

It began innocently enough. The woman in charge of the sign-in desk came to my office three days after I got my new pens. She hung coyly about the doorway, fluttering a doe-eyed look that attempted to hide what I soon would learn was a pen-thirsty hound beneath.

She smiled and asked innocently, “Do you have a pen? The one at the front desk seems to have disappeared!”

In my naivete, I replied with a chipper “sure!” and plucked a pen from my proudly displayed stash. Who was I to refuse her? After all, she is penless and I have an abundance of pens. Surely I could spare one of my forty for her sake.

Hubris would soon return to bite me in the butt. I should have seen the spark in her eye burst into a full-on pen-induced flame the moment I revealed my precious stash of inky goodness– Shakespeare curse me for leaving them so proudly and vulnerably displayed! The desk lady plastered a saccharine “thank you” over my ears so I wouldn’t catch the echoes of her internal maniacal laughter, and for that moment, she succeeded in blinding me to her true self. I suspected nothing. She retreated back to her corner behind the ancient wall of a dusty CPU tower the color of bleached bones, taking my pen with her– the first victim.

I never saw that pen again. The next week, the desk lady was back again, hovering in the same predatory manner about my door. Again, she asked for a pen; again, I obliged. Soon she was asking every Thursday, then every other day, then each morning at 9:30 am. She no longer bothered to ask, but breezed through my door as though it were her own, grabbing one, two, three of my pens in her botched-manicured fingers and dragging them back to the front desk. Why mask herself now that I could blatantly see what her game was?

“It’s so lucky you have so many pens! They just keep disappearing and I have no idea where they go.”

“Maybe someone is klepto-ing them,” say through my teeth as cordially as I can muster.

“Klepto?” she says with blank, soulless eyes, “What is that?”


“Oh!” she laughs. “That’s probably it! I’m sure people just put them in their backpacks without thinking.” She rifles through my desk drawer. “Oh! And I need a highlighter, too!”

I was down to seven lonely, terrified pens (and zero highlighters). Amongst them was the only survivor of her “borrowing” spree: a pitiful pen that was now only part of a pen, it’s clip arm snapped off and the clicker-top unscrewed and lost. This had to stop!

The method had to be quick, cheap, and painless. This can’t be a huge, awesome internet prank because, frankly, I’d like to keep my job for a while longer. The whole “giant flower” method where you tape an enormous faux flower to the top of the pen (or alternately a spork, if you work in fast food) is super cute, but too unwieldy for my needs. I wanted something a little sleeker that wouldn’t distract or impede the ease of writing. I needed something that was stupid simple, but effective that also used readily available resources. The broken state of the single returned pen inspired me: what if it only LOOKED like my pen was broken? Humans aren’t too keen on using broken objects, even if it’s only perceived to be broken (I know you’ve passed up a shattered Easter bunny at the store even though it’s still perfectly edible, tasty chocolate). After exhaustive scientific study, here’s what I came up with:


Any remaining pens

Scotch Tape (preferably matte, not shiny)

A Vendetta

Step 1:

Tear off a long strip of tape, or a series of smaller strips. Your goal is to build up a large mass of tape, so plan you tape strips accordingly. You want it to look like your pen fell apart and you really suck at putting it back together.

Step 2:

Wrap it! Wrap it good! You want a nice little cylinder of tape near the top of the pen, not a spiral. It’s hard to do if your pen is tapered or if you place the tape a little crooked, but smoothness isn’t important; it’s the ugly little belt of tape that is. If you have a pen that caps and you want to be able to place it on the end while writing, put the cap on the top to measure where to place your tape, otherwise you won’t be able to stow the cap up there anymore.

Step 3:

BWAHAHAHAHAHA! Savor the taste of anticipated revenge! Don’t just stop at pens. You can rescue your highlighters and mechanical pencils from the same cruel fate using this method.

I’ve been doing this for the past two weeks and, coupled with a new hiding spot for my few remaining pens, it seems to be working! The Front Desk Lady has been using the taped pen for two weeks now. Even if she wasn’t the one stealing them (there may be another vampire out there who is the true culprit), she hasn’t been stalking my office as much anymore, at least in regards to my pens. I hope the tape-method keeps working! Since the tape is so far up, it doesn’t get in the way of your hand. It also has the added bonus of keeping your pen in place so it doesn’t roll willy-nilly all over the tabletop. If the tape does get grubby or peels, it’s fast to remove and replace!

Now to wrap all these wonderful pens I’ve got from the dentist, the doctor, the bank, my sister, the faculty lounge, the hallway, Pizza Hut……