Core Blog

“Books” – Unraveling and Unbinding History

November 10, 2017

Words Amatullah A.
Digital Art Sakina K.


Amatullah is a theoretical physicist specializing in stellar astrophysics and cosmology, official international Book Fairy (@bookfairies_ke), Sam Kean and Sherlock fanatic and dabbler in the arts of philosophy. She lives on coffee and science, although she is hoping to try out Purple tea and see if that sways her to the light side.

If you are as avid a book fan as I am, you may be the type who looks for that rare special book, with a flourished signature of the Author or rarer still, the manuscript written by the author themselves.

The Leiden University holds such a marvellous collection, with books written by Avicenna himself (WOW right?). Precious few can say that they have gotten to hold such treasures, even if they didn’t understand the language at all. This book was held by Avicenna, it was carefully written in with meticulous thought.

Collections of books mark a scholar’s abode. If you think of a professor, you think of a library behind him, with him sitting at an oak or mahogany desk right in front. It’s just natural to assume that books mean literate, literate means knowledgeable and knowledgeable means wise or scholarly. In fact, people believe that we only liked Hermione Jean Granger because of her love for books even though she was quite a snobby know-it-all in the first books. Books have just come to signify scholarship.

But there is an art that comes with having a great collection. A ritual of sorts.

Books are made of paper, paper is made of pulp and the pulp is made out of trees. Paper is generally dried out cellulose, a component that little critters live on. We have all heard the term bookworm – a person who lives in books, but there are real bookworms that feed on the cellulose and destroy the books. (Oh the sacrilege!) Because of this, ancient books have to be taken care of like delicate China to prevent the destruction of the tome. This is where a precise science is needed, in the hands of an artist.

Holding a scalpel in one hand and a fine bristled brush in the other, the manuscript preserver would slowly open the book, brushing lightly to remove all the accumulated dust or fungus (yeah, that happens too). They would then take apart the neat binding thread to open up the book with surgical precision, one wrong cut and the book might lose it’s rigidity.

Bindings opened, the pages come out one by one and are looked at to fix any and all damage, while still preserving the books natural state. If there was any fungi, a dip in alcohol would turn it back into its normal self. (Alcohol gets the moisture out, drying and then killing the fungi). Thin strips of washi would then be placed like band-aid in the places where the bookworm and silver fish devoured it; healing the fibres yet preserving the text and the scar from the vicious beings.

The manuscript is then left to dry in a slightly humid environment – you know bamboo? It is as supple as it is wet, once dried it is quite easy to break and the same goes with paper. If you try ripping wet and soggy paper, you will find it a little bit more difficult than regular paper. Completely dried out paper would simply crumble in your hand like a dried out leaf. Museums have that weird smell and feel to them because of that, they control everything from humidity to temperature to make sure their stuff lasts as close to forever as they can manage.

Once dry to the touch, the books are rebound and reverently placed back on their shelves. A few Band-Aids atop but still holding strong.

With the advent of technology, we have begun to forget the marvels of a paperback in our hands as we slowly drift to sleep. We have forgotten the joy of writing in the margins about things we found noteworthy, of nudging our friends and showing them a funny excerpt. Books have been shelved indeterminately and the number of people milling in the library have dwindled to a fair two or three. Books, like the rock tablets of the past, have become history; but nature ravages at books at a far faster rate than it does with rocks. There are millions of tomes left undocumented, millions of tomes hidden in the dust of attics – we don’t know how long they will last, but we know that if lost their knowledge will be missed.

The next time that you see a book, take it. Hold it. Preserve it. Who knows who held it before you? Who knows what someone will glean from it after you?


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