No to Cannibals, Yes to Leaf Books

Leaf books are going to be a topic around here for the next few years, so I thought I’d do a short introduction to the genre because many people, even those who are interested in printing and press books, don’t know what they are. We’re in the early stages of producing a book that will present leaves from both Gabriel Rollenhagen’s book of emblems (1611) with copperplate engravings by Crispin de Passe, and George Wither’s A Collection of Emblemes (1635), which used the same de Passe plates. Emblem books are a field unto themselves - a black hole if you’re not careful - and Wither’s book in particular is notable for several reasons. For reasons that will become clear below, I’ll start by saying that the leaves we’ll be including with our publication came from broken, incomplete and poorly-treated copies.

A leaf book is a book about another book, one usually published sufficiently long ago that copies are now rare, or at least scarce. Rarity alone, however, isn’t really justification enough for a leaf book: the source book must also be remarkable for some specific reason. The defining feature of a leaf book is that it contains a leaf from the source book. Ideally these are bound in, attached to a hinge to make viewing both sides convenient. Many publishers get lazy and tip the leaf to a page, making it awkward to view the verso. Some books include the leaf in a pouch at the back board (ugly and untidy - too easy for the leaf to become separated from the book), or in a companion folder (better than a pouch, but being bound into the book is always the best course). The content generally consists of some bibliographic details and a discussion of why the book is noteworthy. For example, the spread at top is from a recent score, the first edition of Nicolas Barker's Aldus Manutius and the Development of Greek Script & Type in the 15th Century, which includes leaves from four Aldine books.

Many people, particularly those who are not book collectors or students of printing history, immediately react with horror at the idea of cutting up one book to make another. My usual response to comments like this is, You just don’t understand, it's never about cutting up a complete copy, go away. That, however, isn’t a useful response, especially in the case of leaf books because the criticism is a fair one, and the genre must be approached with sensitivity to its fundamental dichotomy: celebrating printing history while at the same time pulling a piece of it apart.

The first thing to understand is that leaf books typically are a solution to a problem, the problem being what to do when one is presented with an already broken & incomplete copy of an important book. While I’m sure there have been some exceptions, the vast majority of leaf books get their leaves from an already broken copy. That’s one reason why leaf books typically are issued as a limited edition, and the editions are some strange number - the quantity is determined by the number of leaves available.

The Caxton Club mounted an exhibition of leaf books in 2005, and published the excellent catalogue Disbound and Disbursed. It includes an introduction by Christopher de Hamel, which addresses the tricky status of leaf books, and also the fact that “leaf books, for the most part, have themselves been limited edition productions of private presses.” There’s a reason most leaf books have been published by private presses, beyond the fact that private presses typically have a fundamental interest in printing and its history: the edition of a leaf book is limited by the number of leaves available, and private presses exist to publish small (i.e. limited) editions of specialized interest, and in a manner that compliments the leaf being celebrated.

Some of the ethical discomfort with leaf books is discussed in two blog posts by Adam Hooks, an associate professor at the University of Iowa’s Center for the Book. The posts, which are worth reading, have an underlying tone of disapproval, but they also suggest some subtle misunderstandings about book production, publishing, and collecting that are not uncommon among people for whom “book” primarily signifies the content, not the form.

His lead for a post about the 1640 edition of Ben Jonson’s Works includes a comment about the owners of rare books “keen to sell off their copy bit by bit.” This kind of comment comes from  someone who is not a collector of books, and does not understand people who are. No collector who owns a complete book is going to break it apart in the hope of selling the bits for more than the whole is worth. It is true that this detestable practise has happened, but usually by nefarious dealers cutting prints or maps out of books, not pages of text. Starting around the middle of the last century, the print and bookselling trades, along with private and institutional collectors, began to actively discourage the practise. Unfortunately, it went on for long enough that in some cases, complete copies of a title are now more valuable than the sum of the parts because so many have been cannibalized.

In a subsequent post that is more specifically about leaf books, Hooks’ unfamiliarity with the genre, and private press publishing in general, are reflected in comments about the book Original Leaves from the First Four Folios of William Shakespeare (1935) like “Why did the Grabhorn Press decide to publish such a book?” and “There is also, alas, more work to do in order to explain how and why The Grabhorn Press got into the business of Breaking Shakespeare Apart.” To begin, the Grabhorn brothers did not decide to print such a book: they were commissioned to produce it by David Magee, a San Francisco bookseller with whom they had a long and interesting collaborative relationship. Just like the Second Folio was printed by Thomas Cotes for Robert Allot, a senior member of the Stationers’ Guild at the time (and one of the five publishers of Wither’s Collection of Emblemes - more on that in coming posts). It seems likely that Magee was the source of the leaves, and that he would have encountered them through his ongoing business. (Likewise the Grabhorns didn’t publish Leaves of Grass; they designed and printed the edition for Random House, and making 1930 the culmination of their careers is premature. I would argue that their magnum opus was the three-volume bibliography of their work, with many sample pages included - an extensive and glorious leaf book!) The fact that the edition consists of only 73 copies (not a nice round number, like 70 or 75) tells us that no books were broken for the leaves, but that Magee (or someone) saved the fragments of a copy from the scrap bin (look through the scrap paper box of any binder who specializes in restoration, you’ll be amazed what you’ll find).

All of which is quibbling and not entirely on point. Hooks’ concern for protecting books from cannibalizing is right and just. But publishers of leaf books are not cannibals, they’re preservationists and geeks for printing history. Leaf books are a solution for what to do when you are presented with a damaged, incomplete copy of a rare book. If it’s in the category of an early Shakespeare folio, or just about any incunable, you probably have a box made and be happy for the parts you have. Depending how much is missing, you could potentially have facsimiles of the missing pages made, and have the book reconstituted. On one hand, digital printing makes this easier than ever, but on the other good facsimiles should be (relief) printed, like the original sheets, and on similar paper. Just having a leather spine rebacked will cost a few hundred dollars. If you start getting into complete rebinds, with paper repairs, by a binder knowledgeable of the period materials and techniques, you’ll be over a grand fast. There’s the rub: the cost of conservation or restoration (not the same things), versus the market value of the book. If a complete copy could be sourced for (say) $10,000, and any restoration work would cost even a quarter of that, you’re better off buying the original; a reconstituted copy will always be a distant second in terms of both reference and monetary values.

So, what to do with a book like George Wither’s Collection of Emblemes, when the copy lacks the title page, frontis engraving and numerous other pages, is badly stained and edge-worn in places, with most of the remaining pages detached at the center fold? Strictly speaking it isn’t a rare book: at least one copy usually can be found on the market, probably in the range of $5,000 - $10,000 if complete. Even without replacing the lost pages with facsimiles, just repairing the pages remaining and having them put into some kind of appropriate binding would cost a few thousand dollars. Isn’t worth the outlay. But you can’t just bin the pages! Using them as the basis for a leaf book is much more interesting than selling them off piecemeal. It’s also more respectful to the work, especially when the pages offer an opportunity to explore aspects of the book beyond its content, such as when, how & why it was produced, and by whom. These are the kinds of details that appeal to people interested in printing history generally, plus all the others who will be interested in whatever specific topic the book discusses. It’s not about collecting relics, it’s about using the fragments to sustain a connection with the original work.

In the next month or so I’ll post some of my favorite leaf books.


Speaking of leaf books and Whitman and grass leaves, I remembered this was tucked on one of my shelves. It's not really a leaf book, because the contents were printed specifically for this, but the contents also are pages from the Grabhorn's edition of Leaves of Grass. Does that pencil mark on the lower right corner look like it might be Valenti Angelo's signature?