“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.”a book curse, or anathema, at the end of a 12th century bible.
Scribes and illuminators spent years of their lives on books they knew intimately. These artisans then had to protect their work from dangers like Viking raids. Having a little extra help, in the magical sense, would certainly be tempting in those circumstances. Books were not only a part of these people’s lives, but also objects that took on a life of their own.
Still, we Westerners struggle to see a “life” in our objects. Animist arguments aside, books, lest we forget, come from living beings, and I’m not just speaking about the authors. From the plants in the pages to the animals in the leather covers to the laborers who produce them, books have an undeniable vital spark. Whether we are literally aware of that life in our books or intuit it through the stories, readers end up developing a relationship with our texts that bends the traditional definition of love.
We also face a future unlike any other we have faced before: one of extreme climate disruption. While Abraham Maslow, a psychologist and creator of the “hierarchy” of human survival needs, left books off of the base levels of his pyramid, most bibliophiles would say that books are a vital part of our well-being. So, if we face chaos and would like to protect our books, what can we do besides curses? A good start would be to look at the elemental forces and see what practical magics we can learn from them.
Mold and mildew, part of the extraordinary fungi kingdom, have a not-so fantastic effect on books that can turn serious very quickly and even make books un-salvagable. However, the primary way we can help these fungi avoid our books is by looking at the moisture content of our spaces. Humidity is the Goldilocks of factors to manage and requires a very specific range to be most effective against mold and spores: “between 30 and 50 percent [relative humidity], and temperatures no higher than 70 degrees Fahrenheit.” Not too moist to grow fungi, but not so dry to crack the pages. The trick is that you may have to alternate between using a humidifier and dehumidifier to keep in the ideal moisture range. Depending on your climate, normal air conditioning plus heating might be enough to do the trick.
Still, there are all kinds of creepy creatures who would love come after your books besides those on the far right. Silverfish, a common cause of book damage, look for damp places to live and often find them in the book-lover’s garage or attic. Surprise moisture can happen anywhere, though, so seal your house for leaks. Also keep dead plant matter cleared away from your house’s perimeter. Plant debris not only traps moisture, but also provides the darkness silverfish (and goths) love. As for other unwanted guests like rodents, termites, and cockroaches, the best prevention, as painful as it may be, is to not eat and read. Crumbs are not bookmarks, but they are trail markers to bugs. In addition, dust and clean your books and shelves regularly to get rid of anything appealing to pests. This also keeps away our spore-bound friends, plus shows your books some love.
The final aspect of earth to consider is earthquakes. People in earthquake zones should consider: 1. how your bookshelves are attached to the wall and 2. how your books are attached to the shelf. To hold the shelves to the wall, look for brackets that are specifically labeled as “earthquake straps.” Once your shelves are secure, keep the books on the shelves through either barriers that go on the front of the shelf, or attachment items like museum wax/gel or Velcro, depending on the material and fragility of your books.
Air, associated with ideas and intellect, is an important ally in book protection. Start with good air flow. Unfortunately, you can’t just open the windows because they let in spores and pollen. Preferably, use fans to keep air circulating, as well as keeping your vents open. Don’t keep your books in an area where it is hard to circulate air, like in a closet or basement. Lastly, change your filters regularly, and even consider switching to HEPA filters. If you are like we Texans and blighted with intense pollen, standing air filters may help a bedroom with a bookshelf, both for humans and books.
While the atmospheric effects of air nurture us, we must take care of how atmosphere affects our books. Both extremes of temperatures are harmful to books, so take care to try to keep your bookshelves away from temperature-variable outside walls. If you are storing books, consider making sure the area is temperature-controlled. While sitting by the window and reading in natural light is a picturesque idea, sunlight will cause bleaching and cracking of your books. Even a very strong electric light near books can cause a lesser version of this effect. Either way, live up to the bookish stereotype and hide your books away in a dark(er) corner.
The devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina still sit heavily in our memories. Not even books were safe from the ravages of the storm. Tulane’s Howard-Tilton Memorial library had over 1.5 million books completely submerged in flood waters while over “35% of the libraries in Louisiana [were closed] at one point.” Not only the was the initial water damaging, but our old friends mold and mildew also arrived after the storms. So what can a book lover do against such incredible forces? Or even more probable forces like your upstairs neighbor’s pipe bursting?
The first place to start would be to assess your risk and collection. Are your books rare or antique? Are there any with sentimental value? Do you live in a flood plain, tornado alley, or close to a coast? These questions will help you determine how to proceed with water protection.
If you have lower risk, you may only want to protect certain books. If you have something rare or delicate, start with a BoPET clear film, specifically the Library of Congress-recommended “Mylar® type D, ICI Melinex 516 or equivalent.” Many collectors use these as book covers to guard against general environmental conditions. For a higher level of protection, use clear plastic storage bags specifically designed for archival storage. As part of storm preparations, put your books in these bags, and then store them in either the highest area possible (for a flood) and/or an interior room that can withstand high winds. Some people prefer to keep their most precious books permanently stored in protective bags, and then place those in a portable plastic tub for ease of evacuation. If you use any type of plastic protection, air out your books at regular intervals or see our tenacious fungal friends again.
Out-of-control fire has sadly become a regular part of our world in climate crisis. Obviously, the time and mobility to flee from wildfires is much more important than any object, but some book-protective steps can still be taken. As with water, asses your risk and book collection. If you do not live in a wildfire zone, still prepare the normal household protections of fire alarms, extinguishers, etc. If you have decided to use plastic covers, one of their drawbacks becomes apparent in a fire. While they protect against smoke damage and “melt and flame at temperatures higher than the Fahrenheit 451 Ray Bradbury long ago seared into readers’ brains,” the covers can still melt into your books.
If you are in a high wildfire risk zone, the concern becomes on how to prioritize your books when evacuating, if at all. If you have a book that has incredible sentimental value, consider if it would fit in an emergency evacuation bag (aka bug out bag) with other necessary supplies. The other option would be to keep it in a quality fire-resistant safe, stored in the lowest possible place in your dwelling, or in a safe-deposit box in a bank.
Releasing the Elements
“If we have the opportunity to access both [guns and books], we’d better use this force to defend the knowledge and those struggling to survive.”Mirna Wabi-Sabi “The More-Guns-Less-Books Policy.” A Beautiful Resistance/Gods & Radicals Press
Despite our best attempts (and therapist’s best advice), there is no way to plan for everything that we may encounter. The mess we’ve made is now completely out of our control, if it ever was controllable in the first place. The Good Grief Network advises in their 3rd of the “10 Steps to Personal Resilience and Empowerment in a Chaotic Climate” that we must “practice sitting with uncertainty.” While we can protect and even learn to create our own books, we still may lose our beloved texts—and so much more. So as we mourn the world that once was, and the texts it created, we can still try to shape what lies beyond this crisis through who, and what, we choose to protect. For the power of the anathema, and any protective act, is not in the action itself, but in the intentions of the people taking them.