Adam Smyth’s LRB review of Mr Collier’s Letter Racks: A Tale of Art & Illusion at the Threshold of the Modern Information Age by Dror Wahrman starts with an excursus on the varied fates of printed matter:
Most printed texts lived very briefly, and then were gone for ever. About one in ten thousand 16th-century broadside ballads survives today. Where did printed pages go to die? Some were used for lining pie dishes; for lighting pipes; for wrapping vegetables at Bucklersbury Market, or drugs at the apothecary’s, or (according to Henry Fitzgeffrey) ‘to dry Tobacco in’. ‘Great Iulius Commentaries lies and rots,’ the poet and waterman John Taylor wrote, ‘as good for nothing but stoppe mustard pots.’ Sir William Cornwallis kept ‘pamphlets and lying-stories and two-penny poets’ in his privy, and many texts were ‘pressed into general service’, as Margaret Spufford put it in Small Books and Pleasant Histories (1981), as toilet paper. Books were pulled apart to serve in the binding and endpapers of later books, the pages of an unwanted Bible perhaps padding the spine of an unholy prose romance. A Booke of Common Prayer (1549) in Lambeth Palace Library has endpapers made from a broadside almanac of 1548; the Folger Shakespeare Library copy of The Tunnyng of Elynour Rummyng (1521), John Skelton’s great poem of drunkenness, survives only because it was used as waste paper for the binding of another book. To read an early modern book was to confront the broken, recycled material remains of former texts, and the effect is of a kind of memory or haunting: of a book remembering its origins. Thomas Nashe imagined his printed pages being used to wrap expensive slippers (‘velvet pantofles’), ‘so they be not … mangy at the toes, like an ape about the mouth’. As Leah Price showed recently in How to Do Things with Books in Victorian Britain, we can do many things to books other than read them.
This reminded me of the more pressing need for reuse during the terrible Petrograd winter of 1919; Viktor Shklovsky is writing (in his 1970 book of criticism and reminiscence Тетива [Bowstring]) about his friend and fellow literary theorist Boris Eikhenbaum:
Boris had two rooms. He lived in the small one, so he could be warmer; he would sit in front of the iron stove on the floor on top of a pile of books and read them, tearing pages out of them and pushing the rest into the stove. He was a very educated man with a superb knowledge of Russian poetry and periodicals. In those years he passed his library through fire.
The original Russian:
У Бориса две комнаты. Жил он в маленькой, чтобы было теплее; сидел перед железной печкой на полу на груде книг, читал их, вырывал из них страницы и засовывал остальное в печку. Он был очень образованным, превосходно знавшим русскую поэзию и русскую журналистику человеком. В те годы провел он свою библиотеку сквозь огонь.