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Bookworm vs. Bookworm

A Pocket Tale


Jeff Spielman/Getty Images

OKAY BRIEFLY, then, actual bookworms really do exist, even though the term is a bit overused to denote a person who reads a heck of a lot.

Psocoptera is one such order of insect, several species of whom are the worms from which the — lo! affectionate — human nickname derives. Also known as booklice, or barkflies, these little buggers do sometimes gnaw, chew, consume, digest and poop out little bits of (usually) old books.

I know. I saw one once. This was, oh, around two decades ago. One afternoon I was working at one of the Information desks of a very large and well-known bookstore, sipping coffee, assisting the occasional customer, and casually leafing through the pages of an old volume of Norwegian folktales, when suddenly, quite to my surprise, out from between the pages of the book and onto the counter-top dropped a tiny pale worm.

It squirmed about there on the counter. I leaned over to look at it, pressing my nose onto the counter and peering through my glasses. Even though I am a bookworm myself, it was not — and I’ll emphasize this — it was not like looking into a mirror. The worm was perhaps a quarter inch in length, fat for its size, and segmented. Insidious though it was to the volume from which it had just fallen, it was a vulnerable looking little bit of a thing.

Bookworms can do a considerable amount of damage to fragile old books. They chew little tunnels through the pages, and wreak all sorts of havoc deep within the workings of the binding. They can be a real hazard to any venerable library.

Much worse, however, are silverfish. And as they are far more common and numerous, and generally so hungry you’d think they lived their entire lives in a state of near starvation, even a small crew of silverfish can, given enough time, completely destroy a shelf of books. I’ve seen the results of this sort of infestation. This time it was, oh, nearly four decades ago. I was working in the basement of the main branch of a county library. It was my job not only to retrieve books that patrons were requesting from a librarian sitting several floors above, but also to care for and manage many tens of thousands of books kept in long rows of shelving in these nether regions of the institution. In fact there were more books in the three levels of that basement than in the entire rest of the building above.

One afternoon I received a call for a book that had probably not been referred to in decades. I scuttled on down the steps to the lowest level and then scurried back through the many rows of metal shelves. When I got to the correct aisle I snapped on the light, sidled down the aisle, located the shelf where the book would be, and began to scan the Dewey decimal call numbers on the spines. Spotting the volume I wanted, I reached up to retrieve it. At my touch the spine of that book and both of its neighbors simply fell all to pieces. In the silence of that basement, clouds of dust and little bits of paper and flakes of leather quietly drifted down in front of my startled eyes. The entire bindings of those books had simply disintegrated. Silverfish had been there.

Bookworm that I already was at that tender age, I was becoming informed about some of the real dangers of this bookish world I was starting to inhabit. Just as this world was filled with heady ideas and vast amounts of information and marvelous stories and centuries of culture, so too within it lurked constant insidious elements of death and disintegration.

Freezing. That is one method of ridding an old book of pests. Wrap an old book in a soft cloth, and then place in a zip-lock plastic bag and put in a freezer for a couple days. Afterwards remove and allow the book to breathe again. Any soft-bodied passengers within will likely have expired. This won’t solve the problem of the library environment, however, but just for the one book.

So that afternoon at the bookstore, I surreptitiously dispatched that tiny pale bookworm on the counter-top. I won’t tell you how I did it; it was not pretty. He was the enemy. Innocently enough, it was his nature to destroy that which I had come to hold dear. Although we shared a common name — bookworm — our purposes were opposite. I preserve and disseminate; he just chews and poops. We’d never get along.

More from Peter Kohler
A Tiger, a Worm, a Snail
You Can't Drown a Dragon
When the Gods Go in Drag

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