The opening of Ege's signature essay in "Avocations" 1 (March, 1938).

It is in the creation of specimen sets of pre-modern script and print samples that Otto Ege stands alone among 20th-century bibliophiles. For an enunciation of his views on this subject, one can turn to his arrestingly-titled essay "I Am a Biblioclast," which appeared in the 1938 issue of the short-lived hobby journal Avocations:

"For more than twenty-five years I have been one of those 'strange, eccentric, book-tearers'. Abuse has often been heaped upon our ilk. William Blades in his Enemies of Books and Holbrook Jackson in his Anatomy of Bibliomania each devote a chapter decrying the eccentricities and deeds of 'mutilators' of books. Andrew Lang has divided us into classes and types (I find I am the 'aesthetic ghoul' of the book world)." [11]

In the essay Ege briefly inventories several celebrated biblioclasts, from Pope Leo III to King Henry VIII to Percy Bysshe Shelley. But he returns to his own era readily, announcing that he has been a practitioner for more than twenty-five years—i.e., since about 1913, when he was about 25 years old. He provides an enumerated code for the practice of book-tearing which he himself has adopted:

"Book-tearers have been cursed and condemned, but have they ever been praised or justified? I present for your consideration:

  1. Never to take apart a 'museum piece' book or a unique copy if it is complete.
  2. To search for and make available to schools, libraries, collections, and individuals single leaves or units of mediaeval manuscripts, incunabula works, and fine presses.
  3. To circulate leaf exhibits, supplemented with outlines, lectures, and slides, to organizations so as to engender an interest in fine books, past and present.
  4. To encourage and inspire by these fragments the amateur calligrapher and private press devotee not to imitate the deeds of the masters of the book, but to think as they did to meet present day problems.
  5. To build up a personal collection of books and important fragments to illustrate the History of the Book from the days of Egyptian papyrus and Babylonian clay tablets to the work of Updike and Rogers.

"...Surely to allow a thousand people 'to have and to hold' an original manuscript leaf, and to get the thrill and understanding that comes only from actual and frequent contact with these art heritages, is justification enough for the scattering of fragments. Few, indeed, can hope to own a complete manuscript book; hundreds, however, may own a leaf." [12]

The essay proceeds rather autobiographically from this point, describing the origin and growth of Ege’s “avocation” and his glad social nature with it, but his central reasoning is quite clear: given the already fragmentary nature of so many medieval books, and given the number of people worldwide who might benefit from the transformative power of first-hand observation of such material, why not detach and disseminate manuscript pages? The ethical parameters of the subject are probably obvious to the readers of this journal, and I would frankly be hesitant to judge Ege's actions: the struggle between the impulses of preservation, ownership, use, and display of textual art is as complex as with any other aesthetic form.

The removal of individual pages from books, and the subsequent provenance of those leaves, is a surprisingly unexplored subject apart from annotated lists of the more energetic practitioners; this is certainly largely due to the tracking and referencing difficulties in cases of detached book materials. However, several valuable engagements with the subject of biblioclasty have begun to appear in the past decade, and Ege figures into many of them. Roger S. Wieck, for example, provides a thoughtful and enlightening survey of practitioners in a 1996 essay for the Journal of the Walters Art Gallery and is especially sensitive to the variety of motivations possible in the act; there is a clear resonance between his description of the explicit biblioclastic motives of John Ruskin and those of Ege, for example. [13] Certainly the most enjoyable recent overview of the subject is the 1995 Sol Malkin Lecture given by Christopher de Hamel to the Rare Book School in Charlottesville, Virginia, and printed in the school’s Yearbook: de Hamel enthusiastically, but not inaccurately, states that Ege “probably destroyed more medieval manuscripts than any single person since the Reformation,” observes Ege’s responsibility for “a great arc of single-leaf collections, from Boston to Chicago and up to Toronto, centered on Cleveland,” and helpfully hints at the commercial relationship between Ege and New York rare book dealer Philip Duschnes. [14] De Hamel’s irrepressible urge to play devil’s advocate leads him to close the lecture with an eight-point manifesto in favor of biblioclasty, not unlike Ege’s, and in doing so he keenly articulates the range of rationales observable in virtually any practitioner in recent centuries. [15]

Both of these essays come to a point where they distinguish between the motive of cutting up a manuscript for the sake of advanced decorative elements, and the motive of doing so for the sake of more decoratively-unremarkable features. As analysis of this subject continues during the 21st century, I suspect that the latter topic—which, of course, can reveal more about provenance than the former—will figure prominently. At the present time, what I can state with a purely non-judgmental intention is that over the course of about thirty years (generally from 1920, when he moved to Cleveland, until his death in 1951), Otto Ege did indeed become an extremely active social biblioclast. Not only does the evidence in his Avocations essay and in his memorial album indicate that he disassembled numerous damaged codices for book fairs and lectures, but over the course of his lifetime he loaned materials for stationary and traveling exhibits throughout the whole of North America, parts of Europe, and even (by his own account) China. [16]

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[11] Ege, Otto F., “I am a Biblioclast,” Avocations 1 (March, 1938): 516.

[12] Ege, “Biblioclast,” 517.

[13] Roger S. Wieck, “Folia Fugitiva: The Pursuit of the Illuminated Manuscript Leaf,” The Journal of the Walters Art Gallery 54 (1996): 240-42. No one interested in Ege’s activities and their context should fail to read Barbara Shailor’s lecture transcript, “Otto Ege: His Manuscript Fragment Collection and the Opportunities Presented by Electronic Technology,” Journal of the Rutgers University Libraries 60 (2003): 1-22; see also A. S. G. Edwards, "Scattering the leaves: The melancholy legacy of Otto F. Ege, book collector and book destroyer." Times Literary Supplement, November 8, 2007, 13-14.

[14] Christopher de Hamel, “Cutting Up Manuscripts for Pleasure and Profit,” in Terry Berlanger, ed., The Rare Book School 1995 Yearbook (Charlottesville, VA: Book Arts P, 1996), 12-14. The proceedings volume from the 1998 Oxford Seminar in the History of the Book to 1500, Interpreting and Collecting Fragments of Medieval Books, edited by Linda L. Brownrigg and Margaret M. Smith (London: Red Gull Press, 2000), contains valuable essays by de Hamel, A. C. de la Mare, and others.

[15] De Hamel, 17-20.

[16] Ege, “Biblioclast,” 517-18.

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