Leaf Books And More From Oak Knoll Books
By Michael Stillman
The latest catalogue from Oak Knoll Books features An Extraordinary Selection of Leaf Books. Leaf books are those which include a leaf from another book, presumably a classic of some sort. Some leaves may come from very early printed works, possibly incunables, others old but not ancient works, and a few include leaves from less than antiquarian works, but very attractive items which came from specialty presses. That said, there are also many other typical Oak Knoll "books about books," such as bibliographies, offered in this catalogue. Approximately one-third are leaf books, though others are about similarly classic old books and specialty presses that provided the inspiration for leaf books.
Leaf books are not without controversy, and Oak Knoll addresses the issue squarely from the start in an introductory note. Obtaining leaves for a leaf book necessitates the permanent destruction of the original. Generally, these are defective and incomplete copies, already missing some leaves. Oak Knoll concludes that the value to the individual collector in being able to actually touch and see a leaf from a classic book outweighs the negatives of losing a copy already of limited research value because it is incomplete, and locked away in some rare book room to remain virtually unused. We would agree that makes sense as long as the original is not rare, there being sufficient number of complete copies still available for research. However, we do worry that as the value of leaves goes up, the value of a complete book may no longer be as great as the sum of its parts. At this point, it may become financially advantageous to tear apart even good, complete copies. We are reminded of the bookseller from Arizona offering leaves from an original, complete Book of Mormon, her sum prices (asked) for the leaves far outweighing the going price of a complete volume. This is the terrible downside of leaf books, and yet ultimately, the marketplace is likely to determine what happens to old books, not history and scholarship, regardless of what any of us think.
Item 1 in this catalogue addresses these issues. It is last year's publication by the Caxton Club of Chicago of Disbound and Dispersed: The Leaf Book Considered, by John Chalmers, Daniel Mosser, and Michael Thompson. The Caxton Club published one of the earliest leaf books, a 1905 edition featuring a leaf from the "Canterbury Tales." This book considers the ethical issues involved with leaf books, along with providing a bibliography of those which have been published. Priced at $45.
If the Gutenberg Bible is the most important of all books, and if financial value is the measurement then it certainly is, then this must be the most important leaf book: A Noble Fragment. Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible, 1450-1455. This folio leaf book includes an essay from A. Edward Newton, but that is not what makes the 1921 publication so valuable. Any leaf from the Gutenberg is enormously valuable today, whether part of a leaf book or alone, which gives you an idea what a complete Bible would be worth, considering there are some 600+ leaves per book. This one-leaf book is priced at $60,000.