We are not only the champions of our books, pressing particular titles on friends who might benefit from them, but we are also their protectors. A book is hardy, but also a vulnerable confection of paper and cloth binding, ink and photos and marble endpapers. A book should be shelved securely but not too tightly, guarded from bright sunlight, insects and careless tots.
I consider myself as fierce a guardian of books as can be. But the human vessel is flawed, and once I lapsed. When we moved to this old farmhouse in Northbrook, one book, separated from the others, ended up in a box of magazine story notes stored in our basement. Our wet basement. Our wet basement that sometimes floods.
The waters had subsided and drained away. I was drawing soggy sheafs of papers out of a sagging cardboard box when I came upon "Secret Chambers and Hiding-Places: The Historic, Romantic & Legendary Stories & Traditions About Hiding-Holes, Secret Chambers, Etc." by Allan Fea.
I had bought it for an article on secret rooms and hidden passageways I had written for Games magazine—that's why it was with the notes. I can't convey the grief that cracked across my heart when I lifted the spongey, dripping, swollen thing. My fault.
Ironically, that story was the first time that I had used an electronic search, a set of a dozen newspaper story titles on CD-Rom discs at Northwestern library, finding news articles about pot-growing rooms hidden in Cook County Forest Preserve buildings. I remember being so enamored with the possibilities that I called the company that sold the discs. It might be a trick of memory, but I recall the set being $3,000, but they might have been $3,000 apiece. I remember ordering my next computer, a Dell, without a CD-rom port thinking, "What's the point?" It was early 1992.
The Secret Chambers book was ruined, the cover warped and twisting back. The thing to do was throw it out. But the book was also published in 1901 on fine, ragstock paper and, frankly, I hadn't the heart. It was my book, I was responsible for it, and I had to save it, or at least try. I fanned the book open, then inserted typing paper between the pages and clamped it shut, under pressure and started searching, eventually coming up with Grimm Book Bindery of Madison, Wisconsin, a company in operation since 1854.
It was, I recall, a lot of money to repair—$100 is the figure that sticks in memory—but I took it as penance, punishment to expiate the sin of being careless with a book. I mailed the volume away, and was thrilled with the result, it's deep blue cover embossed in letters of gold.
I've never consulted the book since then, but doing so now, it is as I remember it, with chapter headings such as "Chapter XI: Mysterious Rooms, Deadly Pits, Etc." and "Chapter XIII: "Concealed Doors, Subterranean Passages, Etc."
Who wouldn't want to read those?
In all honesty, reading the book can be fairly heavy lifting—one story after another of the details of sliding panels in old English manor houses now long gone. Not a lot of narrative arc, as we wordies like to call it.
The book's main focus is British history, particular its bloody religious persecution, and the necessity of "priest's holes" where closet Catholics could stow their clerics and sacramental objects when the soldiers came busting in, sometimes staying for days at a time, ripping down paneling and searching for what had to be particularly well-concealed refuge (sustaining the terrified and starving priest during these long searches was a challenge, sometimes surmounted by tiny holes, where a hollow reed could be inserted and broth or marmalade blown through). Hiding places used by architects of the Gunpowder Plot are examined at length.
The famous flight of Charles II after Cromwell's victory in 1651 is, regrettably, given short shrift, with Fea referring readers to his book on the subject, "The Flight of the King." More is made of his brother James II's peregrinations, involving secret staircases and dead-of-night escapes. And some attention to the travels of various Jacobites.
Because these hiding places were, needless to say, hidden, they sometimes acted as time capsules, and it was not unknown for them to be found, containing clothing of a century past, strewn across an unmade bed in a precipitous flight long ago. An example:
A weird story clings to the ruins of Minister Lovel Manor House, Oxfordshire, the ancient seat of the Lords Lovel. After the battle of Soke, Francis, the last Viscount, who had sided with the cause of Simmel against King Henry VII, fled back to his house in disguise, but from the night of his return was never seen or heard of again, and for nearly two centuries his disappearance remained a mystery. in the meantime the manor house had been dismantled and the remains tenanted by a farmer; but a strange discovery was made in the year 1708. A concealed vault was found, and in it, seated before a table, with a prayer-book lying open upon it, was the entire skeleton of a man. In the secret chamber were certain barrels and jars which had contained food sufficient to last perhaps some weeks; but the mansion having been seized by the King, soon after the unfortunate Lord Lovel is supposed to have concealed himself, the probability is that, unable to regain his liberty, the neglect or treachery of a servant or tenant brought about his tragic end.You can read the book free on-line, by the way. Or buy a reprint for $15 or so on Amazon. The Grimm Book Bindery remains in Madison, and I phoned Charles Grimm, fifth generation book binder, to check in with him.
"We get quite a few damaged books every week,' he said. "A fair amount of them Bibles." Though more and more they are repairing old and worn children's books.
"Boomers are moving on in life and want to leave stuff for their grandchildren," Grimm said.
While hurt books are common, soaked ones are not.
"Water-logged, not too often, thank God," he said. Grimm suggested that if a book does become soaked, the best thing to do is what I did: put sheets of paper between the pages and press it while the paper absorbs the water.
""One the pages start sticking together, the real horror begins," he said.
This is Grimm's busy seasons right now—they have to bring on extra staff. Can you guess why? I couldn't. No, not because of heavy rain. Rather, because of text books being reconditioned for school in the fall.
"Text books are shot and rebinding text books is not nearly as expensive as investing in a new copy."
Which raises an interesting question: why, with newspaper and magazines struggling to survive, do text books continue to be both very costly and prevalent? Because not every child in America has an iPad yet? That must be it. A topic for another day.