I’m beginning to think that the longer you live, the more you will discover what has somehow passed you by. For example, how many of you have heard of ‘the Great Book Scare’? Or, put another way, how many of you have ever been infected by one? I mean, we’re not talking toilet seats on planes, or forgetting to wash your hands before you unwrap a Big Mac in a Food Court or anything. And anyway, my mother was pretty up on dirt, and she never warned me about books -although I do remember seeing her leaf through some of the magazines she found in the back of my sock drawer one day. I think she was disappointed that the pictures were only about travels in foreign countries, though. She never found the others.
But I suppose I should have suspected that books could be consummate fomites -especially used books -how could you ever know who, or what touched them? Where they’ve been? What they were used for? Of course, I’ve never been an impassioned frequenter of libraries, so my only real exposure to pre-read stuff was during my forced confinement to dental waiting rooms around Winnipeg when I was a child with cavities. My fears were stoked by the whimpers and occasional screams from the inner rooms, so reading was my solace, my escape; I did not reach for magazines or books with any thoughts of tuberculosis or syphilis. And anyway, by that time I’d already had measles and chickenpox.
But, although life is for learning, I have to admit to a degree of surprise when I read an article written by Joseph Hayes in the Smithsonian Magazine about a time when library books were suspected of spreading disease: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/during-great-book-scare-people-worried-contaminated-books-could-spread-disease-180972967/
TB was fairly common in days past, and there was also a common fear that books might be a vector for the disease. As Hayes writes, ‘This scare, now mostly forgotten, was a frantic panic during the late 19th and early 20th centuries that contaminated books—particularly ones lent out from libraries—could spread deadly diseases.’
There were several reasons for the concern at a time when public libraries were relatively new and the next borrower wouldn’t know who had handled the book before. If they’d been ill, was there a danger of opening the book and inhaling diseased ‘book dust’? Or getting cancer from cells coughed into the book by someone who hadn’t thought to cover their mouth or wipe it off?
Medical opinion was divided as to the risks and in the UK their Public Health Act was updated in 1907 ‘with explicit reference to the dangers of spreading disease via book lending, and those suspected of having an infectious disease were forbidden to borrow, lend or return library books… In response to the panic, libraries were expected to disinfect books suspected of carrying diseases. Numerous methods were used for disinfecting books, including holding the books in vapor from “carbolic acid crystals heated in an oven” in Sheffield, England, and sterilization via “formaldehyde solution” in Pennsylvania… In New York, books were disinfected with steam.’
So, of course, Science stepped in to adjudicate the matter. ‘A study in Dresden, Germany, “revealed that soiled book pages rubbed with wet fingers yielded many microbes.”… An eccentric experimenter named William R. Reinick was concerned about multiple supposed illnesses and deaths from books. To test the danger of contracting disease… he exposed 40 guinea pigs to pages from contaminated books. According to Reinick, all 40 of his test subjects died.’
The conclusions of the science of the day seemed to suggest that although the risk from books in general, and libraries in particular, were probably minimal, they were not zero and so could not be completely ignored. ‘By 1900, pressure was starting to mount. In January, Scranton, Pennsylvania, ordered libraries to halt book distribution to prevent the spread of scarlet fever… The use of chemicals to sterilize books became more common, even though such practices were also thought to harm the books.’
So, the next step was an obvious one: ‘The Western Massachusetts Library Club recommended that books suspected of carrying diseases “should be burned and not returned to the library.” In Britain as well as the United States, books were incinerated to prevent the spread of disease. Recommendations from doctors that contaminated books be burnt were even featured in the Library Journal.’
But, eventually, when people noticed that librarians were not dropping to the ground left right and center, the fear began to diminish. ‘In New York, political attempts during the spring of 1914 to have books disinfected en masse were roundly defeated after objections from the New York Public Library and a threat of “citywide protest.” Elsewhere, the panic began to subside as well. Books that were previously thought to have been infected were lent again without further issue.’
In retrospect, ‘The “great book scare” rose from a combination of new theories about infection and a distaste for the concept of public libraries themselves. Many Americans and Britons feared the library because it provided easy access to what they saw as obscene or subversive books.’ Clearly, sock-drawers were not yet on the horizon.
Although I do have a library card, my affinity for books is so obsessive that once read, I am reluctant to cede ownership; I see a book as family and I am no more willing to part with it than to return my daughter to the hospital from whence she came.
At any rate, I have been known to browse through a little collection of books stacked in the shelter where I sometimes wait for public transit. Most of the books are old paperback thrillers with torn covers, curled and wrinkled pages, not to mention a distinctly used and musty smell to them. I don’t know who puts them there, but there is obviously some interest in the collection because there are always new titles in the group and the selection is certainly eclectic.
I was particularly attracted to one book on the theory of social space, but before I could look through it to decide, my ride suddenly arrived. Strangely enough, it was still there the next day, and also a week later. I realized that there was likely some providence involved, so I grabbed it and stuffed it unceremoniously into my backpack.
Later that evening, when I had finished dinner, I remembered the book and sat down in a comfortable chair by the window and opened it up. Unfortunately the first few pages were missing and some of the rest were torn. It was almost as if it had not led a particularly peaceful existence with its last owner.
Curious, I leafed through the more intact regions, only to find a dark blotch that seemed to have glued several of the nearby pages together as if the book had once lain open on the offending substance and then been forcibly closed. Other pages were similarly stricken, although with rather smaller, more opaque accretions -afterthoughts, perhaps.
At this stage, I felt that, despite the lack of any identifying smells, or menacing book dust as I handled the pages, it did not deserve a place anywhere near my bookshelf. So I wrapped it in a brown paper bag, and laid it to rest in the composting bin. I can only hope that whatever its troubled history, it is finally at peace, and that whatever remains after its degradation will fertilize, not wreak havoc on civilizations to come.
Then, I went back into the house and had a shower -just in case, eh?