On Book Curses: An Apology
Within the vaulted rooms of the J. Reuben Clark Law Library, framed on a pillar, a sign pronounces punishment on all who steal library books. The retribution includes, among other things, eternal consumption by the flames of hell and being struck of the palsy. For three years as a law student, my husband would walk past that sign more days than not, his knees tight and his gait tilting from his Cerebral Palsy.
As far as I am aware, Michael never stole a book from that library, or any other, and it seems unlikely that the (albeit considerable) power of a library sign would have the retroactive effect of inflicting Michael with his Cerebral Palsy from birth. I suppose he might have stolen a book in a previous life, but that seems like very nebulous speculation.
The curse comes from The Old Librarian’s Almanack, a less than factual account of less than actual eighteenth century library practices. However, other inscriptions wherein dire consequences are promised to those who steal or deface books—book curses, they are called— show up in many medieval texts, albeit less dramatically. Marc Drogin, the great discoverer and recorder of book curses, includes in his findings:
Whoever steals it or sells it, may there be anathema on him.
A blessing upon the one who keeps it safe, a curse upon the one who removes it. May whoever takes or cuts a page of it be accursed
And, of the more spirited variety,
If anyone take away this book, let him die the death; let him be fried in a pan; let the falling sickness and fever seize him; let him be broken on the wheel, and hanged. Amen.
These curses are understandable. As a college freshman, I took a course on ancient through medieval manuscripts where we passed around four millenia old cuneiform tablets, scried ancient papyrus pressed between panes of glass, and turned the hefty pages of illuminated manuscripts. My memory has mostly faded since then, but how holy it felt, holding those lonely labors of love—each book the product of years in isolation, mixing chalk with inks, grinding the hair off of parchment using a pumice stone, and the endless, precise miniature stylus work done at times by candlelight—each book kept safe by so many generations of hands.
All of this, of course, before the invention of that magical keyboard stroke, delete! We can’t know how many authors have scribbled a note bestowing root canals on inattentive readers in the middle of their prose, because they likely deleted such notes prior to publication. (By way of illustration, my husband typed to me on this document while it was in google drive: “Many curses have been avoided by a wife pausing long enough to discuss bedtime plans with her hubby.” If he had written this in ink on a vellum manuscript, he would have no choice but to forever memorialize his passing concern. In today’s world, it would be very easy to wrinkle it out of the records—if we wanted.)
Scribes were also often teenagers, still young enough to have good eyesight, but not yet riddled with arthritis in their hands and backs. Teenagers may not be the ne’er-do-wells they are painted as, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a soft spot for drama and exaggeration. I’m pretty certain that I, as a thirteen year old or so, wrote my own book curse in a journal I have since destroyed, saying something like “If you read this and I didn’t give it to you, you have totally lost my trust forever.” I may have believed that comparable to damnation. It’s hard to say.
But I can’t help but wonder, why leave book curses to the past? Whatever our postmodern sensibilities, the psychological pull of superstition remains as firm, I suspect, as in the days of Chaucer, and the making of a book remains a lonely labor of love: a sacrificial rite of sleepless nights, busted budgets, and recurring panic attacks. (I speak in ignorance, having never written a book, but my so-far attempts have effectively instilled in me a positive terror for the process and a deeper admiration for those who complete the ordeal). A galvanizing resurgence of book curses may well be just what today’s literary market needs.
So, I offer this, my platonic apology, though I make a poor defender. I’m afraid, however, that another type of apology is in order: I have borrowed more than my share of books, only to find them years later and wonder who the original owner was, or how to contact them. I have even knowingly avoided returning books that have fared poorly in my care, books that have sustained all manner of bibliotechnical injuries: torn covers and water marks, an abundance of thoughtlessly dog eared pages, an accidental footprint, a splayed spine. I have not lived up to the veneration taught me in a freshmen course on ancient and medieval manuscripts, and though I now decline to borrow books (I might as well purchase them if they are going to end up in my permanent library), it seems an injustice that I have, so far, never been struck of the palsy or cursed with serpents or fried in a pan. The blessed are indeed no more righteous than the afflicted.
In penance (inadequate though it is) I have searched my shelves and boxes, and offer my shy apology to the previous owners of these books: Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, two copies of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Twentieth Century American Poetics, Charles Simic’s The World Doesn’t End, The Handbook of Forgiveness, The Vintage Anthology of American Poetry, and Agatha Christie’s Poirot.
My list is surprisingly short, though I believe this is because I have given away most of my stolen books (including, I’m certain, a few Mrs. Piggle Wiggle books I never returned to my childhood library) after finding myself unable to return them properly. There is something that kankers the conscience when holding onto a book that was never mine, a book given to me in good faith. Perhaps that is why one of my brothers, who worked in a book donation center, dealt mostly with books stamped by a library. The donation absolved, in part, the misdeed.
The saddest part of all, however, was how many books in my keeping, pilfered or not, I simply haven’t read—so many hopeful letters I never bothered to open. And to that, I’d like to add my own clause to the book curse:
May you meet the writer.