Primum non nocere

One of the principles which the craftsman learns, when he is developing the skills of a book-restorer, resembles the primary principle in (legitimate) medicine. “I will abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm,” says the oath in Greek in my Loeb Classical Library edition, usually translated from Latin as “first do no harm.” This is attributed to the sage, Hippocrates. A careful reader of the entire oath will realize that the doctor who performs an abortion, or a mercy killing, deserves very grave punishment; but also a doctor who counsels the same. Of course, ethical standards are not what they once were.

In book repair, one is instructed not to do what was done to many older works I have seen in both public and private libraries. The book has been trimmed or mechanically cross-bound or otherwise desecrated, usually by a well-intended moron. No subsequent book-binder would be able to undo the befoulment.

By comparison, the affixing of a paper cover around contents that remain intact, while it may look flimsy, is not a criminal act. When the book’s owner becomes a little richer, or sells to someone who is, fuller decorative justice can be done. But that competent craftsman must also provide that stitched gatherings be resewn properly, that the book will open flat on a table, that endpapers have not been glued irresponsibly, covering vital clues to the book’s provenance. A book plate or other alteration must not be added, that cannot be removed cleanly by a later hand: or the earlier book-binder is guilty of vandalism.

While it is not customary for book dealers to invoke Apollo, Asclepius, Panacea, or other gods and goddesses, they should nevertheless be aware that angels are watching, and as my father used frequently to remind me: “Le bon Dieu est dans le d├ętail.”

I should wish that this moral principle, of taking care, were extended to all of our creative tasks, and to the repair even of our inferior creations. I consider it to be the primary conservative principle. The designers of office towers, apartment blocks, vile sprawling subdivisions — and the landscape litter of solar panels and electric windmills — should give more thought to how these things will be removed, when a higher civilization comes along.