Book-breaking – the practice of taking a book apart to remove the colour plates or illustrations, the idea being that these are more valuable when sold separately than the book is when sold as a whole. A great many older books lose their lives this way, especially the old naturalist books with beautifully drawn or painted (often by hand) prints of birds, animals, or plants in them. Audubon’s books, for example, were frequently broken before their time, because the prints in them were simply glorious works of art.
Book collectors will generally tell you that breaking a perfectly good book to get at the plates is nigh criminal, though some will take an old volume apart to save the plates if the book is already beyond repair. What they often don’t tell you is how heartbreaking a broken book is.
Case in point: Today I ran across a broken anthology of Sir Walter Scott‘s poems. Once upon a time, the collection had had no fewer than 24 colour plates, each protected by a thin sheet of tissue paper so that it wouldn’t bleed or leave marks on the text page facing it.
The book wasn’t fully “broken” in the scattered-into-pieces-sense. In fact, the boards and binding were still more or less intact, though the binding was severely shaken. But every last colour plate, including the frontispiece, had been removed. Not only that, but they hadn’t been removed well: several had left strips behind on the leaves to which the plates were originally pasted (which were a heavier, dark-blue paper).
…Seriously? Who loves the plates enough to tear them out of a book but not enough to do it carefully? Breaking a book poorly is just adding insult to injury, here.
Once upon a time, that was probably a beautiful collection of Scott’s poems. Now it’s not even worth the $1.99 the Salvation Army was asking for it.
Guides for book collectors announce pretty consistently that a broken book is one of the saddest things a collector ever will see. I didn’t realize they were right.