Rare Book Monthly

Articles - April - 2007 Issue

A Book Lover's Trip Through Dante's Commedia (or the Care and Preservation of Books)

Cantos

A few previously undiscovered cantos of the Commedia were discovered on the road to Ravenna.


by Renée Magriel Roberts

You probably have not heard about this, but a few previously undiscovered cantos of Inferno, Purgatorio and Paradiso were recently discovered by a hiker on the road to Ravenna. Strangely enough, all of these cantos appear to refer to people and organizations publicly or privately tasked with the care, storage, and preservation of books.

With the help of my friends at Talin Bookbindery, we've put together a rough translation of the material (not in terza rima, thank you very much) and the body of work, as far as we can figure out, appears to be a compiled list of dos and don'ts for book handling and care, previously expurgated by known fourteenth-century book abusers.

In the circle of the Innocents, we have, of course, the children who suck on book ends, write on books with crayons, practice their penmanship, draw on the drawings and mangle the bindings. They are together with the book-loving dogs who, when not walked on a regular basis, chew on books and book boxes within their reach.

A book entering Inferno literally has to abandon all hope. Inferno is no place for books, which should be kept at a temperature of 57F - 75F, and relative humidity 50%, avoiding extremes of either heat or cold, moistness or dryness. So that basement that only gets wet sometimes, or the dry, hot attic is not the place to store books, if you hope to preserve their use and their value. Those patrons now in Inferno could have used air conditioning to avoid their fate.

The only plus in Inferno is that it lacks sunlight, which fades bindings and most particularly book spines. Stand the books on unpainted bookshelves located on inside walls, loosely, and when you take them off the shelf Dante suggests that you do not pull on the top of the spine.

As we descend further into Inferno, we find the circle of the elastic-banders, people who feel that they must tie the separate volumes of a work together (or the boards of an individual book that are separating from the text block) with an elastic band that cruelly digs into the binding. Dante suggests that they use loose string or acid-free ribbon tape instead.

Several circles are devoted to the tapers. These include anyone who tapes the dustjackets of books to the boards. The people in this section of Inferno were caught using all manner of duct tape, electrical tape, surgical tape, masking tape, packing tape, and, worst of all, scotch tape. They taped the pages, taped the hinges, taped newspaper articles to the endpapers, adhered price tags to the dustjackets and then, to avoid anybody ripping off the $2 price and getting the book for $1, they cover the tag with cheap scotch tape, assuring the $2 and destroying any value the jacket has.

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