How to curse a book thief

I’m reading Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, a fictive biography of Poggio Bracciolini, the great book-hunter, active circa 1417 and pictured here in cute bucket-cap. It’s an illuminating read.

In the very first chapter I found a useful suggestion. Did anybody ever “borrow” a book you love and then not return it? Just sort of forget? Don’t you hate that? Greenblatt shares a nice Renaissance curse for precisely this occasion: “For him that stealeth, or borroweth and returneth not, this book from its owner, let it change into a serpent in his hand and rend him. Let him be struck with palsy, and all his members blasted. Let him languish in pain, crying aloud for mercy, and let there be no surcease to his agony till he sing in disolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the Worm that dieth not, and when at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of Hell consume him forever.”

Now all this may seem a tad harsh for a misplaced paperback, but recall that the curse pre-dates Gutenberg, so every book was hand copied and those illuminated manuscripts didn’t come cheap. Therefore we should make some judicious choices for our easier times: pick the hand-becomes-a-serpent switch OR the members-blasting palsy OR the entrail-gnawing worms. Any one of these will get your book-borrowing friend’s attention. However, you didn’t hear it from me.

Pamela Schoenewaldt, historical novels of immigration and the search for self in new worlds: WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, SWIMMING IN THE MOON, and UNDER THE SAME BLUE SKY (all HarperCollins).

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2 comments on “How to curse a book thief
  1. Pamela Schoenewaldt says:

    Yes, there are many more contemporary curses, like pox on one’s iPhone.

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