Wednesday 5 June 2024

Nature and the Book

 In Australia, nature and the book existed in a state of war. Summer damp and heat reacted with the bleach in paper to produce ‘foxing’; an apparently pristine book could be marred on every page by its rusty blotches. A few of Sydney’s arrogant varnish-brown cockroaches were likely to scuttle out of any carton you started to excavate, but other bugs were more insidious. Some could drill a perfect millimetre-wide tunnel through the heftiest tome. Others confined themselves to the surface. When a publisher coated his covers with the wrong sort of ‘size’, bugs headed for them in the millions, slithering under the dust wrapper to browse until the boards were covered with winding white tracks. Certain books were notorious for this fault. In a shelf devoted to works by Randolph Stow, insects always singled out his collection of poems, A Counterfeit Silence. ‘It was bound in a turquoise cloth that was sized with gelatine,’ remembers Sydney bookseller Nicholas Pounder. ‘Once a critical humidity was achieved, it was like aniseed to a hound; the silverfish and cockies would scamper, slavering.’ But people could do far worse damage than any insect. Annotations, underlinings and marginalia were common, the reader carrying on an exasperated conversation with the writer. A scribbled ‘Fool!’ in the margin was common, as was ‘Yes!’ or ‘No!’, with the occasional ‘So true!’ Obviously they never expected anybody else to read these books, since, even when they wrote ‘False’, they never explained why it was false.
John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (New York : Thomas Dunne, 2003; 2002) , p. 87.