Wednesday, March 14, 2012

`The Pest of All Book Lovers'

I stepped from the shower and saw, without my glasses, something metallic-looking on the floor, perhaps a shred of aluminum foil. As my thumb and index finger touched it, the foil scurried away. It was a silverfish, a furtive insect of the genus Lepisma, often spied in bathtubs. They trigger no revulsion in me, though I once heard a woman issue a prolonged scream when she found one in the kitchen sink. My specimen moved quickly across the tile and disappeared under the door.

Why “silverfish?” They don’t look like fish, don’t abide in water and “silver” isn’t quite right – more like pewter. The Oxford English Dictionary was not immediately helpful. The first definition, in fact, refers to the insect’s piscine namesake: “One of various silver-coloured fishes found in different parts of the world.”  The second definition offers two synonyms -- “bristletail or springtail” – and three citations. The first, from 1855, is drawn from something called Lardner’s Museum Science and Art:

“A little insect, vulgarly called the silver-fish, or the silver-lady, usually found in damp and mouldy cupboards, and in old wood-work.”

That was a surprise because I associate them exclusively with plumbing. The next is from John Richard Jefferies’ Wild Life in a Southern County (1879): “Some tall volume which he bent over with such delight, heedless of dust and silver-fish and the gathered odour of years.” Silverfish in a book? I’d never heard of such a thing. The final citation, from another previously unknown publication, The Academy: A Monthly Record of Literature, Learning, Science, and Art (1893), cinched the book/vermin linkage:

“The pest of all book lovers, the ‘silver-fish’ or ‘silver coloured book-worm.’”

I’ve been reading for more than half a century and collecting books for most of that time, and never knew that silverfish subsist on “matter that contains polysaccharides, such as starches and dextrin in adhesives. These include glue, book bindings, plaster, some paints, paper, photos, sugar, coffee, hair, carpet, clothing and dandruff.” Books and dandruff?

The only time I ever saw insects damage books on an ambitious scale was in January 1975, my first day on the job at the long-defunct Kay’s Books on Prospect Avenue in Cleveland. Mrs. Kay ordered me to re-alphabetize the Signet paperbacks in the basement, in a stockroom located under the adjoining building – the Domino Lounge. You could hear the jukebox, the bar’s enthusiastic patrons and the flushing of its toilets. The room felt ominously damp for book storage.

The Signets, thousands of them, were arranged on shelves jerry-built from wooden boxes and packing crates. Some of them had gold-colored spines dating from the Forties and Fifties, including George Gamow’s popular physics books (One Two Three . . . Infinity). The top shelves were a foot above my head. My strategy was to lift a section of books, place them on the concrete floor and arrange them by author’s last name. I reached up, grabbed perhaps twenty volumes and – they crumbled into my face.

The books had been internally colonized by cockroaches. Into my face and hair fell particles of desiccated paperbacks, feces and roaches, dead and alive. I spat the mess from my mouth, overwhelmed by the revulsion that silverfish have never inspired. I reported the dissolving paperbacks to the owner, Mrs. Kay, who, characteristically, was not sympathetic. She told me to sweep up the mess and keep alphabetizing, which I did.

Now, thirty-seven years later, the great Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas in Austin, home of thirty-six million literary manuscripts, three copies of the First Folio and Edgar Allan Poe’s writing desk, sets me straight:

“There are several types of insects that damage collection materials including books. The most common pests are roaches, silverfish, and various types of beetles. These insects eat the protein and starch components in books and other materials, and the feces of these and other types of insects can disfigure collection materials.”    

And young, entomologically ignorant bookstore clerks.


seraillon said...

There's something perversely poetic about that image of an insect-masticated, powdery copy of One...Two...Three...Infinity crumbling into one's mouth (though I'm sure you didn't see it that way at the time). That scene belongs in a novel.

Nige said...

Like you, Patrick, I've never once come across a silverfish anywhere near a book, nor seen any evidence of silverfish damage to a book. I've always been rather fond of silverfish - one of nature's great success stories, having been around unchanged since the Triassic. What chance Homo Sapiens lasting so long?

Buce said...

I loved those old Signets. I still have a couple (Tawney/Capitalism, Lippman/Public Opinion, if memory serves). Wouldn't think of actually trying to open one.