Should This Book Be Sliced Apart?
By Michael Stillman
Some articles aren't fun to write. Most of my articles fall into two groups. One is positive, interesting developments that have occurred in the rare book world. These are always exciting, and the second most fascinating type of story to tackle. The other, and number one most interesting, is those about clear evil. Bad guys always provide captivating material. An example is last month I got to write about a map seller who allegedly clipped maps out of rare books at the Yale University Library. No question which category this story falls in.
But then there is that murky, fine line between right and wrong. These are activities that are certainly perfectly legal, and, to some, are totally ethical as well. To others, however, they come across as unseemly, inappropriate, maybe even disreputable. They are certainly within the person's legal rights, though some may question whether it is ethically right. The case of the map slicing, clearly a dastardly wrong, leads to this situation, which inhabits that grey area along the borderline between right and wrong.
Helen Schlie is a retired Arizona bookseller with a very valuable book. It is a copy of the first edition of the Book of Mormon, printed in Palmyra, New York, in 1830. It is, naturally, revered by members of the Church of Latter Day Saints. It was the starting point for a church that now spans the globe, though it is more closely associated with Utah than New York today. Mormons, perhaps more than most groups, are acutely aware of history. They possess what is likely the greatest collection of genealogical research anywhere in the world. A first edition of the Book of Mormon is a most treasured, and collectible, item.
According to Ms. Schlie's website, she obtained her copy over thirty years ago. She does not state how, or from whom, she obtained it. Nor does she say why she has chosen this time to sell it. However, she does say that she wants to make it available "in a way that more people can experience its remarkable influence." Certainly she does have a plan to enable more to experience this rare book, or at least a little of it. That last clause, "a little of it," should be taken literally. You see, Ms. Schlie is cutting her Book of Mormon into pieces, hundreds of them, to be scattered far and wide, among those who can afford her asking price.
If this were a car, we would refer to what Ms. Schlie is doing as "parting out." When a car becomes too old and broken down to run any more, it is sold off in pieces, or parts. This is nothing new with old books. A rare and particularly desirable book that is missing some pages may similarly be broken into pieces. Sometimes, the pages will be used in "leaf books." These are books, frequently about antiquarian or other rare books, that include a leaf from an older title. Other damaged old books are broken down for their maps or plates, which are sold piecemeal. Normally, however, this is only done with defective copies, those missing some pages or possessing serious damage. Generally, a complete book, if it is in good condition, is worth more than the sum of its parts, so there is no incentive to break it apart, or some might say, destroy it.