For the Love of Books: My Sacrificial Book

by Liz

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!