Filed under: Book Conservation, General Musings, Mark Twain, Religion | Tags: blogging, book conservation, bookbinding, Christian, faith, grace, Innocents Abroad, Islam, jim downey, Legacy Bookbindery, literature, Mark Twain, religion, writing
I wrote this back around 1993, and had it up on my archive site. Yesterday I had reason to look it up, and first looked here, figuring that at some point I must have reposted it. But a search didn’t turn it up, and I thought that I should correct that oversight.
It’s interesting to now look back to it, and to see how little my attitude/approach to the subject has changed with another 23 years of book conservation experience.
Mark Twain, in his early work Innocents Abroad, described how Christian craftsmen were given special dispensation to enter mosques in the Holy Land in order to install or repair the clocks which called the faithful to prayer. Sometimes I feel like those clockmakers, and wonder how they reconciled their non-belief in Islam with the service they provided that faith. Did they feel the grace of Allah’s touch in their craftsmanship, or in the heartfelt thanks and blessings they received from the faithful?
I am a book conservator in private practice in the Midwest, and a significant number of the books I work on are religious texts, usually but not exclusively bibles. While I am a deeply spiritual person, largely in the Christian tradition, I do not consider myself to be a person of faith, and I have doubts about the existence of a single divine entity by whatever name. Still, I respect the religions of others, and am comfortable working on the books that deeply religious people bring to me.
Repair of holy scripture is an odd thing for an agnostic to do. My friends of faith say that it is part of my path of spiritual growth, perhaps the way I will be led to discovery and belief. Perhaps. But I consider it more that I am keeping faith with my clients. A bible, particularly a personal bible which is used for daily prayer and inspiration, is probably more private and revealing than a diary. I can tell from the way the binding is broken, from the wear on the pages, from the passages highlighted or notes made, what is important to the owner, what their innermost fears and hopes are. I suspect that often I know more about these things than they do themselves. I am a therapist of paper and glue.
These books are precious, not in a monetary sense, but in a personal one. I can see it in their eyes when they bring the bible to me, asking me if it can be repaired, worried less about the cost than the time it will be absent from their lives. The repair of these books is usually simple and straightforward, just an hour or two of labor. I can fit this work in between larger projects, and get the bible back to the owner in a matter of just a few days. This news usually comes as a relief. But almost always the owner is still hesitant let go of the book, hands slowly passing it over as they search my face for a clue as to whether they can trust me with this part of themselves. Just as a veterinarian receives a beloved animal who needs treatment with gentleness and grace, out of concern for the owner as much as for the pet, I receive their bibles as a sacred trust.
And when they come for their bibles, I am sometimes embarrassed. Embarrassed because of the praise, the occasional blessings, and the overflowing joy they feel. It is times like this that I feel that my hands are not really my own, my craftsmanship and skill not something that I can take pride in, but a rare gift that comes from outside of myself. And I am grateful, whatever the source, for this touch of grace that enters my life.
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