From Materiality #1: William Blades lends a book to a friend, by @slimejam

In 1880, English printer and bibliophile William Blades published a treatise entitled The Enemies of Books. In it, he described many of the ways in which books could meet with accidental or deliberate harm. Scholars have recently uncovered some of Blades’s early personal correspondence, including the following letter written in 1852. Blades (then aged 27) had sent a friend a copy of Edward Burgess Strankly’s 32-page monograph Habits of the Cephalopod from his own personal library; the letter, reproduced in part below, offers some practical advice from Blades concerning the book’s safekeeping.


My dear Godwin,

You will have gleaned from our previous Communications that toward my Books I am guilty of a somewhat Ardent Attachment. However, this Desire to protect even the least deserving of volumes from Unloving Treatment does, it appears, have its Darker Shade. Indeed, one bookbinder of my Acquaintance has suggested that I might be Plagued by something he rather mysteriously terms ‘Control Issues’. Nevertheless, please find enclosed my copy of Strankly’s excellent Habits of the Cephalopod, in which you expressed interest at our Last Meeting. While every Atom of my Soul recoils in Distress at the notion, I hereby advance the volume to you, on Loan, that you may profit from the Information contained between its (fine morocco) covers.

I know, Dear Friend, that you are a person of Education and Sensitivity. Having said that, it can do no harm at all to issue a Reminder of certain Crucial Protocols it is incumbent upon you, as Recipient, to Observe while the book is in your Possession and (if it is not too strong a way of putting it) at your Mercy.

Firstly, do not place the volume on too high a Shelf, where it might be spoiled by Rising Heat. Secondly, ensure adequate supply of Air and Ventilation, to prevent any accumulation of Mould. (This latter point is almost so Obvious as to not require stating. However, please do it.)  I suggest regularly opening and closing the Door nearest to the shelf in which the volume will be (Temporarily and, I trust, Tenderly) inserted. This will achieve the Twin Aims of circulating the air in the room and forestalling any accumulation of Dust. Somewhere in the region of Twenty ‘opening and closing of doors’ sessions of five to ten minutes each should prove Trivial to work into your Daily Schedule. (I leave the precise intervals to your Judgment.)

At the same time, should your Wife (I trust she is well?) or Servants take it upon themselves to clean your books while my own volume is nestled carefully their Midst, I would ask you to acquaint them with a handful of Basic Guidelines pertaining to the safe removal of Dust and Other Contaminants (here attached as Appendices I through VIII). As a side note: whilst the book is in your Possession, you might wish to cease the provision of Candy and Other Sweets to your Children (I trust they are well?). We both know the Danger posed by the combination of Curious Young Minds and Sticky Young Fingers. Also, avoid resting the book on the Floor by the Armchair during your reading of it; this is of course would provide a Prime Opportunity for our friend the Cockroach to gleefully Nibble at its Bindings. (I beg you not to draw any Inferences from my having referred to your Children within the same passage within which I have also included a reference to Cockroaches. No comparison between the two is intended, except that both are Geniuses, knowingly or unknowingly, in the Libricidal Arts.)

All of the above are, of course, the most basic Formulae of Judgment and Good Sense, and I am almost embarrassed to be setting them out so needlessly before you. But one can never be Too Careful; books, through a variety of Circumstances, may easily fall prey to Accidental Mutilation and Murder, and for that reason I believe you may profit from reviewing the Aforementioned Notes once or twice (even three times a day would not be Overdoing It).

Do please also guard against the possibility that the book, accidentally or by design, may find itself passing through any Nearby Rifts in the Space-Time Continuum. This is particularly important if the Ultimate Destination of any such trans-spatial, trans-temporal Corridor should include any of the following:

* Certain Libraries in Alexandria in the middle of the first century

* London in the year 1666

* Any Past or Future Circumstance involving, say, the heaping of books onto Bonfires or any other variety of fanatical Bibliographic Incendiarism.

[NB: Several more pages follow under the heading ‘Other as-yet-Unknown but not-Unforeseeable Hazards’; regrettably, these are either missing or damaged to the point of illegibility. —Ed]

Finally, be it at all within your power, do not allow Science and Technology to accelerate to such a point where it is possible to manufacture the Printed Word using nothing but Points of Light, such that books could be carried about in Artificial Containers like interchangeable Molecules in a Matchbox. The care we take in Treasuring our Books can only ever be as great as the care that is put into the Making of them. Were Books to be produced with such Ease, and Reproduced in such hypothetically Infinite Quantity, then so much easier, so much more Casual, Abstract and Insidious, would be the Methods by which we might unwittingly Destroy them.

Your friend,

William Blades

PS. If you could have the book back to me Promptly that would be Splendid.

Chris Miles writes books and things and builds websites. Two of his non-fiction books for younger readers have been listed as Children’s Book Council of Australia Notable Books. His short fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight MagazineAntipodean SFVisible InkThe School Magazine and the Black Dog Books anthologies Short and Short and Scary. His first novel, a young adult comedy, will be published in 2014. He blogs at

This article appeared in Materiality #1: Book. If you enjoyed it, you might enjoy the whole shebang! Purchase a copy at the pinknantucket press shop. (Available in hardcopy and digital versions, $10/$3.95).