Having antique astrology books rebound
– a Sibly experience
– June 19th, 2007

There seems to be conflicting advice around regarding what is the best thing to do with old books in their original bindings in a sorry state of repair.

At least one source recommends that you should never have them rebound because they will instantly lose some of their value as soon as the original binding is removed, and more if the new binding is in any way flawed or out of character with original bindings of books from the same period.

Oh, and it is also a given that if there are any lacks from the original book by way of plates or pages, they have to be professionally replaced by accurate reproductions, generally at very great expense per page or plate.

Against this is the very obvious (to anyone who has had dusty old books with detached covers and rotting leather spine sitting around in their home for a year or two) reality that when books are not properly protected by firm bindings the pages become much more vulnerable to damage and decay – damage by moisture in the air, by dust, and by accidental stresses and tears incurred through the contact of exposed parts of the book with other books, bookshelves, or anything else. In the event of dropping a book that is not properly bound, the damage to the pages is likely to be serious. So holding onto a book that is improperly bound without doing anything to repair it can be perilous for the book’s contents.

Here is where my personal Sibly story begins.

Until the Autumn of 2004, I had not bought one single astrology book printed earlier than about 1950. I was deeply fascinated by ancient astrology texts, but for reasons of extremely low income had not once looked beyond cheap reprints and modern editions of them. The highest price I had paid for any book on astrology at all was probably the $75 I spent on Dave Roell’s hardcover reprint of Cornell’s ‘Encyclopedia of Medical Astrology’.

However, in my fascination with medical astrology in particular, I was gripped by curiosity to seek out a copy of Ebeneezer Sibly’s book ‘Key to Physic and the Occult Sciences’, first published around 1794. This was one of the titles recommended in the most extensive bibliography of medical astrology I have ever seen, which so happened to be on the Internet.

(It is still there now in fact, even though its compiler, John Kirk Robertson, passed away in 2001. See:- http://members.aol.com/robertsonjohnk/part13.htm*)

It dawned on me after extensive investigations that this book had not been reprinted since the very early 1800s, possibly about 1806 if memory serves me correctly, though this is only very approximate. There were three original copies available on the Internet used book networks at that time, of which the cheapest was priced at $375, and in stated ‘fair’ condition, with two missing plates (out of thirteen in a complete copy) and ‘the leather is peeling from the covers’ being declared, yet with all plates hand-coloured, suggesting it was a true first edition from 1794, as subsequent printings to 1806 or thereabouts have only monochrome plates with no hand-colouring.

$375 was far more money than I had ever considered spending on any book about astrology to date, yet in the absence of any modern reprint, I saw no option but to purchase the original. I bargained the bookseller down to $335 after first offering him $300 (which he rejected). And so this massively expensive (or so it seemed to me at the time, in my ignorance of the antiquarian book market; in retrospect it was quite good value in fact) and quite large and heavy 396-page quarto tome was on its way to me in the post.

After paying my customs bill to Sweden, I took delivery of it, and opened the box. The wear to the binding was truly a sight to see, with the leather having peeled away at the spine to quite an advanced state, and somewhat to the ‘boards’ (the habitual booksellers’ term for the front and rear covers of a book) also.

Inside, the pages and plates were in remarkably fresh, white condition still, all things considered.

However, the spine was truly on its very last legs, as became apparent when I leafed through the book and found that between certain pages there were only a few brittle white threads (perhaps what booksellers call the ‘gathers’?) keeping the book together at all. One of the last two or three at the weakest point split with an audible ‘snap’ as I turned the pages. Clearly it was not strong enough by itself to cope with the workload of keeping half the heavy great book together.

Thereafter, it was only a matter of months before the book had split cleanly into two pieces, and a few more months before two became three, even while I left it idle. The bookseller’s description had not prepared me for this eventuality, and I was quite dismayed. I noticed that it now seemed much drier than when I had bought it; and I began to reflect that possibly I had exposed it too much to the elements by keeping it on a table near the window through the winter, a window that tended to be kept open at night, drying it out and fatally weakening the final gathers holding it together.

One lives and learns; but I was not about to write off this poor book on which I had spent such a lot of money. It was still in lovely condition internally, and the hand-coloured plates are particularly stunning, even though as it turned out the subject matter of the contents of the book is mostly medical, with a lot less astrology than I had expected from Sibly.

I set about looking for reproductions of the two missing plates so that I could have it rebound to their inclusion. The second least-expensive copy of the book on the market had sold soon after I bought this one, leaving only a copy priced in excess of $1000 (in today’s terms) from a bookstore in Yorkshire, England, whose description indicated that all its plates are present.

To spend another $1000 on source material in order to complete a book costing $335 would have been extravagant to say the least, so I waited around a year for a more affordable copy to come up on ebay or on the used book market. But none did, so in the Spring of 2006, about 18 months after I first bought my copy, I found myself contacting the bookshop in Yorkshire about the possibility of arranging for reproductions of the two missing plates. To his great professional and personal credit, the bookseller was very obliging and helpful. However, at the last moment the plan fell through as it emerged that, while my copy had eleven out of thirteen colour plates, his had thirteen out of thirteen monochrome plates, and was thus clearly a later edition than mine. Monochrome reproductions of plates that are supposed to be in a very particular colour scheme would not have done anything much to enhance the value of my copy, so I waited further.

Eventually I decided that the book was deteriorating too fast without a proper spine, and this January (2007) decided to have it rebound as it was, without waiting any longer to obtain reproductions of the elusive two missing plates that I had been unable to source from anywhere in over 27 months of waiting. I took it along to the one book bindery in Stockholm that seems to actually welcome old books for rebinding, as opposed to simply personal diaries, personal dissertations, small-run modern publications and the like.

I met the binder, a native of Italy who happened to have moved to Stockholm many years ago, at his premises, which appeared to be little more than a personal apartment as viewed from the outside, but inside was stocked with leathers and serious-looking machinery, and piled high with books from Stockholm’s Royal Library, clearly a major client of his.

I half-expected his quotation to be astronomically and prohibitively high, but was pleasantly surprised when he estimated 900 kronor for a period-style leather rebinding, equivalent to £64.43, or $128.03, definitely worth spending on a book of this size and value.

At the same time, I took along a copy of Sibly’s edition of Culpeper’s Complete Herbal and English Physician Enlarged that I had bought at a recent ebay auction, with only monochrome plates but all plates present, and both covers detached, for just over £50 (at least £200 less than a complete copy is worth). Another 900 kronor for this, he told me.

And for good measure, I took along my copy of Volume One of Alfred Pearce’s journal ‘The Future’ from 1892-3, which had cost $300 AU, about $200 US, from a seller on Abebooks, a price well worth paying in my opinion even though the covers were in a sorry state of repair, for what is a truly fascinating and extremely rare publication. Although slimmer, this is also a very large-format book, so again the price would be about 900 kronor.

Now I must admit that as a vegetarian (but not strict vegan, though I once was) I have serious ethical qualms about the use of leather in bookbinding when non-animal-sourced materials may be available. In point of fact, I have studiously avoided the purchase of leather footwear, watch-straps and furniture for the past sixteen years. However, when faced with the prospect of possibly halving the value of these books and upsetting for posterity book enthusiasts who might chance upon my copies after my lifetime if it were to be rebound in a material inappropriate to its period, I reluctantly found myself yielding to tradition and accepting leather as the material of choice in these instances. [I could write plenty more on that topic, but Skyscript is really not the place for such controversial matters, so I’ll leave it there!]

The Italian bookbinder then asked me if I needed the work done urgently. I did not want him to feel rushed, so I said ‘no’. ‘Two or three months?’ he continued. I thought at first he was joking, having presumed that by ‘urgently’ he meant ‘within a week or two’. Two or three months seemed to me, in my naivete, to be extremely slow.

Imagine then my surprise when, after hearing nothing further for two months, I ‘phoned up again in the middle of March to enquire after his progress. It turned out that he had not even begun! There had been a delay with obtaining the leather of the colour he needed. He would call me when it was done.

Fast forward another three months to yesterday, June 18th 2007…. I had still heard nothing, and had been becoming increasingly anxious after twice we had been unable to reach the binder on his advertised telephone number. What if he had gone out of business? What if the books had accidentally ended up in the Royal Library pile and been stacked away among Sweden’s greatest literary treasures that are guarded by heavy security there day and night? How would I substantiate my claim of rightful ownership? Ok, so I’m exaggerating a bit here for the sake of telling a more amusing story, but the thought did cross my mind in a fleeting moment (forgive my instinctively fretful eighth house Mercury in Pisces if you will)…. This time, we got through on the ‘phone without trouble. The books were ready. The total cost had increased slightly from 2700 Swedish kronor to 3200 kronor, but this was still very reasonable for the work of a specialist antiquarian bookbinder – just try getting three full-sized quarto volumes from the 18th or 19th century rebound in leather in London for as little as £75 each – you should be so lucky!

I hurried around, cash in hand, to collect them the same day (yesterday afternoon). I have to say that the binder has done a beautiful job. The two Sibly volumes have been completed in matching full leather, just as would have been the case when the two volumes were first sold, often together. Particularly impressive is the fact that he has replicated the style of the original spines on Sibly’s ‘Culpeper’s Herbal’ and Pearce’s ‘The Future’ volumes very faithfully – unlike on Sibly’s ‘Key to Physic’, the raised bands, title labels and some gilt details were still visible from the original bindings of the other two volumes, so he could copy them exactly.

I was also very pleased that he managed to save and incorporate into the new binding the beautifully coloured marbled-effect endpapers from Sibly’s ‘Key to Physic’. They remind me almost of 1960s psychedelic art, over one and a half centuries before their time!

My only serious regret is that my copy of Sibly’s Culpeper has only monochrome plates. In its matching binding to his ‘Key to Physic and the Occult Sciences’ it looks as though it will be the same edition inside too. But clearly the Culpeper volume I bought on the cheap was a slightly later monochrome printing.

All three books are now well set to survive the next few hundred years before needing further attention, provided that they are looked after properly by whoever succeeds me in their care. And that as much as anything was what I set out to achieve here.

At the same time as paying for the work and collecting the books, I presented my Italian friend with a challenge of slightly greater importance: Placido de Titis’s ‘Physiomathematica’ from 1650, which I bought for $1125 (after a courtesy 10% discount from the advertised price of $1250) towards the end of last year, after realising that no translation was available to date and that it is a very important theoretical work in the history of Renaissance to early-modern astrology. (I had been discussing it with our late friend Sue in this very forum just beforehand.)

It is in its original limp paper boards, but one of them is detached, and all that remains of the spine is a few rows of brittle bands, whose grip on the book’s prefatory pages has already fallen foul of the ravages of time. The paper of the book itself is completely untrimmed, with huge margins and virtually no notes or marks of any kind by any former user, and looks remarkable fresh and white for its age, although somewhat wavy. The title page has already suffered a tear as a result of being unprotected by a proper binding. Clearly this book needs to be protected from further damage before it disintegrates into an almost worthless pile of torn and soiled loose leaves.

So I enthusiastically introduced Placido to the Italian bookbinder as a great Italian astrologer. I could palpably sense his pleasure at my interest in the work of a great Italian author. But what really surprised me was his additional remark, quite unprovoked and sincere, to the effect that he was himself rather interested in astrology too.

How many bookbinders out there see astrology as anything better than an indulgent and off-beat historical curiosity, I wonder? I left the book with him confident that it was in the safe hands, for more reasons than one!

* – Update, November 27, 2014: This link no longer works, but the page can be found conserved through the Wayback Machine at www.archive.org

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