Read PARCHMENT BINDINGS of The Booklover and His Books , free online book, by Harry Lyman Koopman, on

There are certain things, the Autocrat informs us, that are “good for nothing until they have been kept a long while; and some are good for nothing until they have been long kept and used. Of the first, wine is the illustrious and immortal example. Of those which must be kept and used I will name three meerschaum pipes, violins, and poems.” May we present another representative of the class which gathers value with the “process of the suns,” one as immortal and historic as wine and even richer in associations the parchment book cover? In this case it matters not whether the object meets with use or neglect. So long as it is not actually worn to pieces on the one hand, nor destroyed by mold on the other, the parchment binding will keep on converting time into gold, until after a few hundred years it reaches a tint far surpassing in beauty the richest umber of a meerschaum, and approached only by the kindred hue of antique ivory.

Here is a table full of old parchment-bound books, ranging from a tiny twenty-fourmo, which will stay neither open nor shut, to thin, limp folios that are instantly correspondent to either command. Those that are bound with boards have taken on a drumhead quality of smoothness and tension, especially the fat quartos and small octavos, while the larger volumes that received a flexible binding resemble nothing in surface so much as the wrinkled diploma on yonder wall, with its cabalistic signature now to be written no more, Carolus-Guil. Eliot; but all agree in a tint over which artists rave, the color that gold would take if it were capable of stain. But there is no stain here, or rather all stains are taken up and converted into beauty. Dust, dirt, smudges, all are here, and each is made to contribute a new element of charm. Is the resultant more beautiful than the spotless original? Compare it with the pearly tint of the diploma, or turn up the folded edge of one of those flexible bindings and note the chalky white of the parchment’s protected under-surface. The same three hundred years that have made over Europe and made English America have, as it were, filled in the rhythmic pauses between their giant heart-beats by ripening Dr. Holmes’s wine and touching with Midas caress these parchment bindings!

It is surely a crime to keep such beauty of tint and tone hidden away in drawers or all but hidden on crowded shelves. Let them be displayed in open cases where all may enjoy them. But let us go softly; these century-mellowed parchments are too precious to be displayed to unappreciative, perhaps scornful, eyes. Put them away in their hiding-places until some gentle reader of these lines shall ask for them; then we will bring them forth and persuade ourselves that we can detect a new increment of beauty added by the brief time since last we looked on them. I once heard an address on a librarian’s duty to his successors. I will suggest a service not there mentioned: to choose every year the best contemporary books that he can find worthily printed on time-proof papers and have them bound in parchment; then let him place them on his shelves to gather gold from the touch of the mellowing years through the centuries to come and win him grateful memory such as we bestow upon the unknown hands that wrought for these volumes the garments of their present and still increasing beauty.