DeFlip Side #95: The Book Curse


Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis and this is DeFlip Side.

I have once again experienced the unique pleasure and wonder associated with having my own library. It’s happened to me so many times that it got me thinking: there must be a flip side to my frequent flights library euphoria. If my books are imbued with such joy, there must be some out there on the other end of the spectrum. There must be cursed books. Well, I couldn’t find any spooky Halloween lore regarding cursed books, but my quest did unearth a delightfully morbid and superstitious bit of biblio esoterica all but forgotten today: the book curse. There’s a difference, but let me start at the beginning, with my library epiphany—which, in a manner befitting the season, came about thanks to a book by the biggest name in modern horror.

A while back, a friend recommended that I read Stephen King’s The Gunslinger, part one in his “Dark Tower” series. I finally got around to borrowing his copy and while it wasn’t The Shining or Misery, it was pretty okay by later Stephen King standards and I wanted to read the sequel right away. So zip, I’m upstairs and in my library, kneeling before my shelves, pulling out the Js to get to the Ks buried behind them. Well, not all the Ks are buried. Just the Stephen King Ks, which I banished to the stacks in a fit of pique after wasting 1,000+ pages of my precious reading time on Needful Things. True story: I actually sort of puked on my copy of Needful Things during a bumpy plane ride, which I probably should have taken as a sign or something, but I digress. As I said, I was rummaging through my banished King collection and sure enough there it was. The Dark Tower II: The Drawing of the Three. It had been sitting for so long that layers of dust had turned into a coating of grime. But after the application of a slightly damp paper towel, I was thumbing through a near-pristine trade paperback edition complete with snazzy full-color illustrations, reliving a bit of my youth.

I used to devour Stephen King books back in high school, subsisting on a steady diet of paperbacks. Noting this obsession, my mother one day surprised me with a copy The Drawing of the Three. It was the first time I had received a book from her that wasn’t a specific Christmas or birthday request. And it was significant to me because up until that point she routinely asked me why I would spend money on books when I could just take them out of the library. My standard retort was always “Would you rather I buy drugs?” which, though always good for a laugh, still made me feel defensive about my growing obsession with owning books. So the fact that she had purchased this book for me, unbidden and motivated only by kindness, was an acknowledgment that made me feel great.

And there I was, more than 20 years later, standing in my kitchen, holding this book and remembering all this and feeling great all over again. It also struck me as weird and kind of neat that my relationship with this unread book was longer than the one I’ve shared with my wife. And bam! Having a library had become just that much cooler. Since I didn’t have the first volume of “The Dark Tower” way back then, I put The Drawing of the Three aside. And it has traveled along with me on life’s journey in the decades since, waiting patiently for its time to come.

Unfortunately, the majority of my books share that fate these days. It’s the bane of a serial book buyer. I won’t be able read most of the books I own for years due to sheer volume. And I can’t stop buying.

My quest for the subsequent volumes in the “Dark Tower” series led me to The Strand, a famous New York bookstore that boasts 18 miles of books in stock. There are so many books there that whenever I go it literally overwhelms my senses. My eyes hop from cover to cover, title to title, display table to display table, frantic to see everything at once. I have to let it pass and collect myself before going on.

With books so plentiful and easily obtainable, it’s hard to conceive of a time when they were scarce and valuable and jealously hoarded. But that’s just what they were back in the days before the printing press. Unless you were royalty or rich, there was usually only one place to go if you even wanted to see a book.

Yes, you had to get thee to a monastery, where the books were either locked away or chained down. But chains or not, people found ways to steal them. So the monks employed another deterrent against would-be thieves: the book curse.

Yes, the book curse. Your last line of defense against the unscrupulous bibliomaniac. Libraries had employed them for thousands of years, dating back to the days of clay tablets. They were warnings placed somewhere within the text, promising that the wrath of the gods would rain down on anyone stupid enough to steal whatever they were reading. But the medieval monks brought it to a whole new level.

It’s important to get a sense of the book landscape at the time. Say you wanted books and actually had the financial means to pursue them. You still might never be able to acquire one. Very few were for sale. Libraries and private collectors refused to lend books out, and even if one did, you would still have to wait years before a copy could be made, because the monks able to do it were busy copying books for their own religious orders. No wonder people just stole them. Hence, the book curse. The lighter curses called for physical torment, all manner of painful illness and death. Check this one out:

“Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let be him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged.”

Yee. Frizzled in a pan…

And if the falling sickness sounds bad to you, well that’s just small potatoes. The monks really got book curses cooking by invoking spiritual blackmail, including threats of damnation and excommunication. Damnation curses left little room for equivocation. For instance:

“Should anyone by craft of any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not recorded among the Blessed.”

Could mean Hell. Could mean limbo. You willing to chance it? But worst of all were the anathema curses. Anathema was like excommunication on steroids, not only removing the offender from church, but from the eyes of God entirely. A triple threat of social, spiritual and physical death balled into one. So the curses could be fairly straightforward:

“May the sword of anathema slay, If anyone steals this book away.”

Succinct, economical, final. But since the book curses were the only place where the monks were allowed to cut loose and write whatever they wanted, many reveled in the creative license.

Here’s one that’s good and gruesome:

“For him that stealeth a book from this library, 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. Let there be no surcease to his agony till he sink to dissolution. Let bookworms gnaw his entrails in token of the worm that dieth not. When at last he goeth to his final punishment, let the flames of hell consume him forever.”

Blasting your members? Now that’s one badass monk. But can you blame him? If you were a medieval scribe, hunched over your parchment, quill scratching industriously, laboring to preserve the collected wisdom of the ages only to have some thief sneak away with what probably amounts to a year of your life, you’d want the jerk to burn in Hell, too.

And think how especially ballsy book thieves had to be, what with these curses hanging over their heads. We may find them quaint and morbidly amusing, but book curses were surprisingly effective theft deterrents in rampantly superstitious times. There were also substantial real-world consequences to excommunication, which would render you a social outcast.

So I can’t help but wonder which side of the book curse my own bibliomania would have landed me on had I lived in those times. Scribe or thief? I’ve been both in the here and now, once writing a book, and once stealing one from the library. Yes, only one and I’ve since checked it for curses—I’m clear. But the fact that those were once the only choices open to book lovers… THAT was the true book curse.