Monday 15 June 2020

Infected Books

The long overdue reopening of 'non-essential businesses' in England is a welcome reminder of the 'old normal' (i.e. normal life) and seems to be helping to generate a more relaxed atmosphere. Among these 'non-essential businesses' are bookshops, with Waterstone's inevitably to the fore. It's a shop I only visit if there's nothing better (which, sadly, is the case where I live), but I'm glad they're open again and, by all accounts, doing a roaring trade. Buying books in an actual shop is certainly a richer experience than buying online (and if Waterstone's ever had anything I want, I'd do it more often). The down side, however, is that Waterstone's are bending over backwards to reassure the fearful returning shopper by reintroducing a practice that had long ago died out – disinfecting books. Customers will be asked to put aside any book they've touched but not bought, on a trolley which will in due course be trundled away into 72-hour quarantine.
  I'm pretty sure Patrick Kurp posted a piece on the disinfecting of library books a few months ago, but I can't for the life of me find it. The story, anyway, is essentially one of a panic, with no real foundation, that blew up in the late 19th century, peaked in the early years of the 20th, then died down – and the point is that it has long been known that there is no evidence that the handling of books can pass on any serious infection: this piece from the Smithsonian magazine gives an account of the panic and its groundlessness. However, I can personally attest that the practice of disinfection did not die out as early as is widely believed: certainly, in my childhood, it was common practice for public libraries to disinfect or incinerate books returned after contact with someone suffering from any of a range of infectious diseases.
  And now Waterstone's has revived the notion of infected books – it seems you can't keep a bad idea down, especially in this new age of anxiety. 


  1. The one and only Dave Lull has swiftly located Patrick's piece on Anecdotal Evidence, 'To Leave You an Opinion of Their Sagacity', from April 9th this year.

  2. My grandmother believed secondhand books carried scarlet fever.

  3. Yes, that seemed to be the main fear, I think – even in my childhood, when scarlet fever wasn't killing anyone.