Friday, December 9, 2011

Modern Books Are Not Edible: A Farewell To Bookworms

by Stephen J. Gertz

The Bodleian Library.

"Great is bookishness and the love of books."

So declares Augustine Birrell (1850-1933), whose In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays was published in London by Elliot Stock and in New York by Charles Scribner's Sons in 1905.

The sentence opens his essay on Bookworms in the Bodleian Library and wherever books are shelved, chewed, and digested. He refers not to those of us who live inside of books but Anobium pertinax, that other lover of books. We read 'em, they eat 'em.

They're one of the many enemies of books cited by Birrell in his overview of printer and Caxonist William Blade's The Enemies of Books, published in London by Elliot Stock in 1902.

After upbraiding  the Charity Commissioners of the Bodleian  for selling off books that were water-logged and rotten, and declaring these public servants to be of a lower order of primate and  sworn enemies of books, he begins As the Worm Squirms, a squiggly science travelogue including  the care  and feeding of a bookworm on the edge of darkness, hitchhiking in Hebrew, an ill-fated bookworm's meeting of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads, and a doomsday eulogy for the cruel fate of the bookworm in the modern world:

From: The Enemies of Books by William Blades.

"By the side of these anthropoid apes, the genuine bookworm, the paper-eating insect, ravenous as he once was, has done comparatively little mischief.  Very little seems known of the creature, though the purchaser of Mr. Blades’s book becomes the owner of a life-size portrait of the miscreant in one, at all events, of his many shapes.  Mr. Birdsall, of Northampton [Birdsall's of Northampton, bookbinders*], sent Mr. Blades, in 1879, by post, a fat little worm he had found in an old volume.  Mr. Blades did all, and more than all, that could be expected of a humane man to keep the creature alive, actually feeding him with fragments of Caxtons and seventeenth-century literature; but it availed not, for in three weeks the thing died, and as the result of a post-mortem was declared to be Aecophera pseudopretella

"Some years later Dr. [Richard] Garnett, who has spent a long life obliging men of letters, sent Mr. Blades two Athenian worms, which had travelled to this country in a Hebrew Commentary; but, lovely and pleasant in their lives, in their deaths they were not far divided.  Mr. Blades, at least, mourned their loss.  The energy of bookworms, like that of men, greatly varies.  Some go much farther than others.  However fair they may start on the same folio, they end very differently.

 "Once upon a time 212 worms began to eat their way through a stout folio printed in the year 1477, by Peter Schoeffer of Mentz [Novellae constitutiones, etc.?]. It was an ungodly race they ran, but let me trace their progress.  By the time the sixty-first page was reached all but four had given in, either slinking back the way they came, or perishing en route.  By the time the eighty-sixth page had been reached but one was left, and he evidently on his last legs, for he failed to pierce his way through page 87.  At the other end of the same book another lot of worms began to bore, hoping, I presume, to meet in the middle, like the makers of submarine tunnels, but the last survivor of this gang only reached the sixty ninth page from the end.  Mr. Blades was of opinion that all these worms belonged to the Anobium pertinax

"Worms have fallen upon evil days, for, whether modern books are readable or not, they have long since ceased to be edible.  The worm’s instinct forbids him to ’eat the china clay, the bleaches, the plaster of Paris, the sulphate of barytes, the scores of adulterants now used to mix with the fibre.’  Alas, poor worm!  Alas, poor author!  Neglected by the Anobium pertinax, what chance is there of anyone, man or beast, a hundred years hence reaching his eighty-seventh page!"

Cue Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings, his mournful, heartrending elegy now, unfortunately,  so stale from over-exposure in movies, particularly Platoon, that it could fairly be re-titled, Sad Schmaltz for Bad Violins.

Anobium pertinax aka Bookworm, RIP in open casket.

Having thrown a rose on the coffin of Anobium pertinax, Birrell ends his anti-encomium to the pest of all pulp with a parting shot at other book vermin:

"Time fails me to refer to bookbinders, frontispiece collectors, servants and children, and other enemies of books; but the volume I refer to is to be had of the booksellers, and is a pleasant volume, worthy of all commendation.  Its last words set me thinking; they are:

"’Even a millionaire will ease his toils, lengthen his life, and add 100 percent to his daily pleasures, if he becomes a bibliophile; while to the man of business with a taste for books, who through the day has struggled in the battle of life, with all its irritating rebuffs and anxieties, what a blessed season of pleasurable repose opens upon him as he enters his sanctum, where every article wafts him a welcome and every book is a personal friend!’"

Particularly on rye, with mustard. After ingestion, the personal friend is chased by a snifter of brandy, then, after digestion, an exegesis is excreted and read for prophecies. I anthropomorphically refer to Lord Wriggle of Wessex and his taste for books, his favorites tales, naturally, being The Conquering Worm by Edgar Allan Poe;  The Lair of the White Worm by Bram Stoker; The Worm and the Ring by Anthony Burgess; The Early Worm by Robert Benchley; Eye Worm Flower by Allen Ginsberg; and Dr. J.H. Snoddy's horrific tale of The Worminator - Snoddy's Treatise on Hog Cholera and Swine Plague: Symptoms and Cure Fully Explained: A Complete Worm Exterminator.

True,  swine worms don't eat books but all bookworms are swine. Unless they're human, of course, and thus divine. But if suffering from pica they're definitely pigs, and a tasty book hasn't a prayer.

BIRRELL, Augustine. In the Name of the Bodleian and Other Essays. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1905. First American Edition. Octavo. 312 pp.

*The roots of Birdsall of Northampton "stretch back to the early eighteenth century but it was in 1792 that John Lacy's Northampton bindery was acquired by William Birdsall, continuing in his family until 1961...In Birdsall's heyday, Gerring (Notes on Bookbinding, 1899) reported a staff of 250 engaged in making ladies handbags, fancy boxes, and stationary; as well as all types of bookbinding. The firm seemed always ready to experiment and careful records and samples were kept by Richard Birdsall, great-great-nephew of the founder, until he died in 1909...The firm's collection of over 3,000 finishing tools passed to the University of Toronto" (Maggs, Bookbinding in the British Isles II, #262, and #321).

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email