Leaf books are books containing one leaf (two pages) cut out of an old, decorative or famous volume, presented with some sort of accompanying commentary. This isn’t, to my mind, too different from cutting out a page from an old illustrated book and framing it so it can be used as a bit of home decoration. In principal I can’t avoid agreeing with John Carter that “breaking-up is not to be condoned, even in a good cause.” I have often registered my protest against book sculpture, not to my mind any kind of good cause. (I did walk beneath an archway made of sculpted books in an otherwise excellent Pennsylvania bookstore recently, though I wasn’t too happy about it. A bit like walking under a ladder. And the CUP bookshop did display a book sculpture one Christmas. I’d like to have them share my belief that they should have known better!) I suppose I do have to admit that sculpting a book may be no worse than burning it or pulping it. Pulping a book does at least generate material to make more paper — which is obviously more important than creating decorative objects.

Chopping pages out of a book destroys the integrity of the volume, and leaves it less useful to future readers. But what about a book of drawings by a famous artist? At AbeBooks, Scott Brown gives a brief run down of modern artist’s book illustration. Would it be OK to cut out a leaf from a book containing some engravings by Picasso and frame it for display on your wall? The puritan in me says no, but on the other hand if you’ve just paid $12,000 for the thing, maybe you have the right to do what you want with it. Book illustrations and the artists’ book perhaps present different issues. The Victoria and Albert has a useful essay on artists’ books.

Leaf from the St Albans Bible auctioned at Christie’s on 10 July 2019

Erik Kwakkel has a piece at his blog entitled Breaking Bad: The Incomplete History of the St Albans Bible. In 1964 Philip Duschnes, a New York rare book dealer paid $1,500 for a Bible produced in early-fourteenth-century Paris. Starting in his 1965 catalog he began offering individual leaves cut from the book. He seems to have done quite a bit of business in this mode, as of course have lots of others. You can apparently still buy cut-out leaves from manuscript books on Ebay.

Maybe we need to apply different standards to manuscript books and print books? My objection is fundamentally that breaking up a book destroys the book (in the sense of content, not so much as physical object, though it obviously does that too). But I’d have to admit that no amount of cutting up of Bibles is going to get us close to any risk of losing the content. So maybe it’s better that lots of people should be able to frame a page from the St Albans Bible and display it on their wall than that yet another copy of the Bible should sit around, unopened, in an archive. Of course as Professor Kwakkel points out these pages being in private hands does prevent scholars from examining them.

Am I stumbling towards a principal that shutting up works of art, graphic art, inside a book is wrong? I’ve never felt enthusiastic about artists’ books — though one has to agree that artists have every right to express themselves in book form. If the artist has created a work of art which takes the physical form of a book, it must be wrong to chop out part of it. But if they didn’t create these engravings to live inside a book, I’m not sure that we need to respect the decision of some entrepreneur to offer them to us in that form. On the other hand, although cutting out leaves may bring some short-term income, it does at the same time reduce the value of your book. Mr Brown tells us that a complete edition of John James Audubon’s Birds of America has sold for $8.8 million.

Does it make a difference that the St Albans Bible is a unique, manuscript, copy? Not sure it does — the bit of unique that’s significant refers to the text, I think. Tearing out pages and using them as kindling would be unambiguously wrong, but that’s not what’s going on here — Arctic explorers are unlikely to lug along with them medieval illuminated Bibles. It’s just the profit motive red in tooth and claw. In theory it might be possible to reassemble the St Albans Bible, though in practical terms this is obviously unlikely ever to happen. Once a leaf has fallen it risks being lost for all time.

Parenthetically I might add that, to me at least, the fact that a text has been made digitally available online does affect the case. Doesn’t make it right to chop up the book, but does make it less damaging.