Fragments and Book Breaking

Book breaking is the purposeful dismantling of a book, typically to sell the individual pages of a book for profit, as in the case of several of the illuminated manuscript leaves in our collection. This phenomenom is distinct from disbinding, in which a book may be dismantled in order to perform conservation work, such as rebinding. 

Sometimes the owners of books dismantled or altered them for artistic purposes, so that their books would fit the fashions of the time. The printers of early books typically sold the books without covers, and so the book owners would have them bound in the fashion of the day. Later owners might rebind them to suit changing preferences. Aesthetic book alterations involved adding new covers or recycling pages from books for other uses, such as writing material, music, or in some cases, art.

In the case of our collection, the manuscript leaves came from books that Otto Ege dismantled. He claimed that breaking these books would expand access to these medieval manuscripts and thus would improve education by enabling more individuals and institutions to own a piece of a manuscript. This bookbreaking trend emerged in a wave of biblioclasm (or book destruction) during the 1930s and 1940s, where manuscript leaves pervaded the book dealing market, scattering pages around the United States. None of these pages were labeled with their original book title or author, so it is difficult to connect the fragments to others, and even to denote their original purpose. This leaves present day readers only able to grasp glimpses into their original uses from images and text translation. The book breaking that gave us our manuscript leaves caused their original companian pages to be scattered and separated from their original contexts, limiting what we can learn about them. Below we will discuss the impacts of this breaking as well as the implications surrounding this. 

Why did book breaking happen?

Book breaking is the process of dismantling a book by cutting out pages and reusing the paper for other means, such as for letters. While historically this has always been a controversial practice, in recent history book breaking has sparked a new kind of controversy due to its profit potential for booksellers, specifically in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some book breakers believed certain pages, such as maps, were worth more if sold individually than they would be if they remained bound in their original books. Oftentimes book sellers would limit this practice to already damaged or subpar books.

However some, such as the infamous Graham Arader and Otto Ege, dismantled perfectly intact books and sold their pages individually for far more money than the complete books would have fetched on the market. As noted, the loose pages in Trinity’s collection originated from Otto Ege, who, unlike Arader, claimed to have done his book breaking for purely altruistic reasons. Despite these claims, this type of book breaking has greatly compromised our ability to identify where many of these pages originated.

How does book breaking impact us today?

Book breaking has deprived modern day scholars of access to complete versions of these early and often significant books. Many books that have been broken in the past are missing large portions of their original content because scholars cannot easily track down all of the pages that book sellers sold to individual buyers many years ago. Book breaking also caused damage to the surviving and locatable book fragments. Many people who purchased these individual leaves from book sellers lacked either the knowledge or the funds to properly maintain them, causing damage to accumulate over time.

Currently, Trinity has two manuscript leaves that resulted from book breaking, a page from the Book of Hours and a page from a medieval breviary. Click to the next page to explore these beautiful pieces!

 Is Book Breaking Destructive?

The kind previously discussed is, but physically dismantling a book is not exclusively harmful. In some cases, books must be disbound in order to be fixed due to damage; like fire or water damage or natural degradation. As you’ll see in this exhibit, disbinding can help repair the structural integrity of an otherwise damaged book through rebinding. Rebinding is a process where a book’s contents are carefully taken out of its cover stitched and glued into a new cover. This can occasionally cause the pages to skew or warp in a way that destroys some of their contents by folding the words too close together to be legible. 

Fragments and Book Breaking