English Bookbinding Styles, 1450–1800
A Handbook
By David Pearson
New Castle, Del.: Oak Knoll Press, 2005
221 pages. $65.00
ISBN 1584561408
Binding styles remains an area in which even rare-book specialists often feel under equipped or under-trained and it is one that is often poorly served in catalogs
I know less about bookbindings than I like to admit, a gap in my training that I suspect is shared by many of my colleagues in special collections libraries. Fortunately for my self-esteem, I am not alone, according to David Pearson, who states in his recent book on English binding styles that the subject “remains an area in which even rare book specialists often feel under-equipped or under-trained, and one that is often poorly served in catalogues.”
Pearson’s new book is printed in a large format (8H by 11 inches), with hundreds of illustrations, a generous font size for easy reading, and a helpful index. The main sections cover the meaning and interpretation of bookbindings, materials and construction techniques, decorative styles, the development of tool shapes over time, and the relationship between bookbinders and the book trade.
Pearson wrote the book to “provide a toolkit of information which will enable anyone working with or handling historic bindings to know better what they are dealing with, and to create a platform on which greater understanding can be built.” I decided to test this claim by opening the toolkit, so to speak, and using its contents to answer a question that has bothered me in a niggling way for years about a specific binding in the John Carter Brown Library, where I work.
The volume contains two works by John Smith of Pocahontas fame. The first is The True Travels (London, 1630), and the second is The Generall Historie of Virginia, New-England, and the Summer Isles (London, 1627). I normally present this book in classes as being the copy owned by Charles I of England, based on a statement to that effect on the green morocco slipcase that protects the book, as well as our catalog record. This attribution of provenance was based on the fact that the arms of Charles I are stamped on the front and back covers in gold (I later learned that James I, Charles I, Charles II, and James II all had the same coat of arms).
I am not a binding historian, and so had no particular reason to doubt that the stamp of royal arms meant royal ownership—and it was nice to discuss the book’s contents in relation to such an owner. Pearson burst my bubble on page forty-seven, when in a general aside he says that “throughout the timespan covered by this book…royal insignia on bindings do not normally indicate royal ownership—the use of royal arms or emblems was not uncommon as a decorative device.” A search of the archives revealed that the claim of royal ownership rested on a bookseller’s shoulders and was part of his sales pitch. Henry Stevens offered this copy to John Nicholas Brown on October 5, 1892:
Stevens was a master at painting a grand picture in just a few strokes, deftly turning a defect into a potential selling point. His claim that Charles I owned the book is not necessarily false, but in light of Pearson’s statement there is no specific evidence that it is true. What I have in hand is at best a sophisticated (repaired) volume, rebound in its original boards and spine. However, evidence can still be extracted from what remains of the original binding.
Pearson’s book contains over 760 images (diagrams, details of ornaments, pictures of bindings in black and white and in color), and with it I assembled a nice file of evidence about this binding, which, admittedly, is not one in which either text was issued. To my mind, however, this fact makes the binding even more interesting to understand as an artifact.
According to what I can determine from Pearson, it is a typical early seventeenth-century centerpiece binding: the royal arms in the center, within two concentric quintuple fillets (the middle or third fillet is in gold, the rest are blind-tooled), the inner fillet having gold-tooled fleurons at the corners. These fleurons are identical to one of those shown in Pearson, who dates this ornament as being in common use between 1590 and 1655. His cost information for types of tanned leathers is another useful tidbit. Goatskin was most expensive, followed by calfskin. Sheepskin was the cheapest leather. Thus, the calfskin covers and the overall design mark the Smith binding as of a type commonly found in a mid-market product manufactured in Cambridge between 1630 and 1655.
I must confess that I have withheld one piece of evidence that is not part of the binding. There is a note, in a seventeenth- century hand, at the top of the title-page of the first work that seems to be related to the binding. It is dated 12 February 1648, nicely within the range suggested by Pearson. Much like the original bookseller’s optimistic cataloging, this statement was of uncertain value without the other, confirming evidence from the physical object, which English Bookbinding Styles has allowed me to compile, present, and interpret. I can’t think of better criteria by which to judge a great reference book.
Richard Ring is Reference and Acquisitions Librarian at the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University.

Lost Libraries
The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity
Edited by James Raven
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
294 pages. $65.00
ISBN 1403921199

An eyewitness account of the sacking and destruction of the Iraqi National Libraries in April 2003 leads Philip Hensher to note, “The burning of books…is so powerful a symbol of barbarism that the stench of it hangs in the air long afterward: It is something impossible to forgive, impossible to forget.” Unfortunately, this was not the first time books were destroyed in Iraq. According to Lost Libraries, “Genghis Khan’s grandson burnt the city in the thirteenth century and, so it was said, the Tigris River ran black with the ink of books.”
Lost Libraries offers a sobering reminder of the fragility of book collections. Editor James Raven’s introduction sets the tone for the subsequent essays. It is also the best piece in the book, cogently surveying a couple thousand years of catastrophes that have befallen libraries. The other contributors consider specific examples of book dispersals and their implications.
The essays also explore how the systematic destruction of books and libraries can be used as a tool of propaganda for both the pillager and the victim. The conqueror tries to obliterate the culture, the language, and the morale of the conquered. The conquered sometimes exaggerate the damage to great collections to illustrate the barbarity of the conqueror. There are many dramatic stories of the burning of Alexandria’s library on the orders of Julius Caesar and Caliph Omar, but modern scholars have discovered these are myths that conveniently mask the likelihood that the collections gradually degraded over centuries. Lost to our cultural memory, however, is the story of the destruction of Europe’s greatest medieval library, assembled by the Hungarian scholar-king Matthias Corvinus.
Sometimes libraries are destroyed by dispersing books rather than burning them, and that loss becomes someone else’s gain. This equation is elaborated in essays by Nigel Ramsay about the breakup of English libraries following Henry VIII’s reformation and by Dominique Varry on the seizure of private libraries during the French Revolution. These social upheavals redistributed vast collections of incunabula, manuscripts, and printed books. Many treasures were lost, but many found their way into the British Library and the Bibliothéque Nationale, which made the works available to the public for the first time.
The twenty-first century isn’t immune to the destruction of collections. There are modern human catastrophes—the fall of Baghdad, the occupation of Tibet—which orphan or destroy many books. The de-accessioning of books and periodicals by modern libraries creates new controversies for debate, diasporas for scholars to pursue, and opportunities for collectors to buy.
The essays, as individual pieces, are intensely focused on specific historical periods and subjects, as opposed to the epochal scope and themes in another book on the subject, Matthew Battles’s Library: An Unquiet History. Collectors and readers alike will appreciate Lost Libraries. The writing is lucid and engaging, too often a rarity in scholarly literature, and the passion of the authors is palpable.
Pasco Gasbarro

The King’s English
Adventures of an Independent Bookseller
By Betsy Burton
Layton, Utah: Gibbs
Smith, 2005
312 pages. $24.95
ISBN 1586856871

This episodic history of Betsy Burton’s bookstore, the King’s English, reflects the recent story of independent bookselling. Burton and her first partner, Ann Berman, opened the shop in 1977, fueled by an enthusiasm for good literature and a dream of creating a hangout for book lovers in Salt Lake City. Neither partner knew much about running a business, but over time they learn how to negotiate with sales reps, stock inventories, assess and shape the reading tastes of their customers, and thwart the pilfering hands of larcenous employees. When a passion for books is no longer enough to make ends meet, they face the challenges bedeviling all independent booksellers: computerization and the Internet; chain stores and publishing monopolies; and the perennial bugaboo of civilization, censorship. At the King’s English, censorship evolved from objections over feminist literature in the 1970s to the Patriot Act in the 2000s. There are also the challenges unique to running a bookstore so near the headquarters of the Mormon Church. When Jon Krakauer comes to speak about his book on Mormon fundamentalism, Burton finds herself working with a private detective, the local vice squad, and a martial arts expert to provide security. She wonders where the line is between satisfying the wants of customers and squelching free speech.
The most entertaining parts of the book are anecdotes about famous and not-yet-famous authors who stop by the King’s English on their book tours. Isabel Allende is as colorful and passionate in person as her novels suggest, even during Utah’s winters, and British mystery writer John Mortimer endures a series of miscalculations with the aplomb of his defining literary character, barrister Horace Rumpole. There are even author signings where nobody shows up.
Burton doesn’t shy from self-examination. She ruefully notes that she lost a series of business partners due to personal differences and has failed often as a manager. Her candor balances the book’s frequently informal and praise-laden prose.
And then come the lists. Burton assembles eighteen lists of recommendations of books published or sold by the shop. The lists range from the expected “25 Favorite Young Adult Books,” to those showing the spirit of independent booksellers—“25 Thrillers with Moral Heft.” The appendix offers advice from other booksellers around the country. Many readers may find good recommendations in these lists, but I found them ultimately overwhelming. Is Burton competing against Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust?
The King’s English caught my eye because of its polished packaging and good page design, and anyone passionate about independent bookstores should read this story. It suggests there’s hope for the independent spirit in the twenty-first century.
Pasco Gasbarro

Not of an Age, but for All Time
Shakespeare at the Huntington
by Jane Purcell
San Marino, Calif.: Huntington Library, 2005
85 pages. $12.95
ISBN 0873282019

This is a pleasing book for anyone with an interest in Shakespeare’s life and works. Jane Purcell, a high school teacher, offers far more than a handbook or guide to the Huntington Library’s Shakespeare holdings. The book’s eighty-five pages contain ninety-eight illustrations—including the inevitable title-pages and portraits, as well as art inspired by the plays and modern-day photographs of the library. Purcell’s command of Shakespeare scholarship comes through on every page, but the knowledge is worn lightly and served up with a palatable style.
The chapters cover Henry Huntington as a collector; the authorship controversy; Shakespeare’s life, works, and sources; “bardolatry”—the idolization of Shakespeare; and fakes and forgeries.
Purcell’s book is a good model for libraries to follow, as it is a publication that successfully straddles the generic divides between a monograph, an in-house guide, and an exhibition catalog.
Rick Ring