Book Curses

image2If you love reading as much as I do, you might be like me—reluctant to let anyone borrow a book that you’ve bought. It’s always a risk because you can never be absolutely sure that the borrower—even a close friend—will take proper care of it. Many years ago when I was in fourth grade, I let a classmate borrow my favorite hardback book of scary stories. Naively, I thought everyone respected books as much I did. After weeks of repeatedly asking for it back, I escalated to a threat to have my mother call her mother. The next day my book was returned. The cover was torn off, some pages had been ripped out, and the remaining pages had been scribbled on. It had suffered a horrible, demeaning death at the hands of a book murderer! A difficult lesson to learn at such a tender young age, that day I discovered I shouldn’t trust just anyone with my most valuable possessions.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

book-thiefYears later I loaned a book to a friend of mine. I had known her for a long time, we had socialized at each other’s homes, I thought she was a fine, upstanding person. A few weeks passed and I asked if she had finished the book. She cheerfully gushed that it had been a great read and then she told me she had donated it to charity along with a few dozen other books she had read. I was dumbstruck. In my assessment of her worthiness to borrow my book, it never occurred to me to question her understanding of the word “borrow.” How did she come to the conclusion that I had given her my book to do with as she pleased after she read it? Let’s just say that, due to a plethora of reasons that include her insensitivity to property rights, she is now an ex-friend.

doctor-strange-benedict-cumberbatch-benedict-wongWhen I saw Marvel Comic’s Dr. Strange movie last year, I was ready to enjoy Benedict Cumberbatch in the title role. It was a great movie, filled with mysticism, excellent imagery, and just the right amount of humor. But the part I liked best was the library. The ancient tomes were so valuable and their contents so dangerous they were kept chained to the shelves so no one could steal them. This makes a great plot point in a movie, but the fact is, chaining books to shelves was a fairly common practice in medieval libraries.

imageBefore Gutenberg started a printing revolution, books were laboriously hand-copied by scribes, back-breaking, tedious work that made every bound text precious and expensive. Chaining books to shelves and keeping them locked up helped deter thievery. But long before books were made of sheets of parchment or paper either hand copied or mass produced, there was a technique used to add a layer of special protection to the readable work: book curses.

clay_tabletPop culture has made us all familiar with curses written on mummy’s tombs and bewitched books of spells. Did you know that the oldest known library routinely inscribed its books with elaborate curses to prevent theft? Ashurbanipal, King of Assyria from 668 to 627 BCE, assembled his library at Ninevah. He had scribes include various curses on the tablets invoking the wrath of ancient deities for anyone who would steal or damage them:

I have arranged them in classes, I have revised them and I have placed them in my palace, that I, even I, the ruler who knoweth the light of Ashur, the king of the gods, may read them. Whosoever shall carry off this tablet, or shall inscribe his name on it, side by side with mine own, may Ashur and Belit overthrow him in wrath and anger, and may they destroy his name and posterity in the land.

bookplatecWhoever removes [the tablet], writes his name in the place of my name, may Ashur and Ninlil, angered and grim, cast him down, erase his name, his seed, in the land.

Ashurbanipal made allowances for those who wanted to borrow, not steal. He who fears Anu, Enlil, and Ea will return it to the owner’s house the same day, and He who fears Anu and Antu will take care of it and respect it.

As books evolved from clay tablets to something a little more portable, the tradition continued. In medieval times monks and scribes often appended their own colorful curses to the works they produced. Like Ashurbanipal, they called upon a wrathful God to strike down the book thief and frequently recommended excommunication from the church.

PrintThis book is one, And God’s curse is another; They that take the one, God give them the other.

To steal this book, if you should try, It’s by the throat that you’ll hang high. And ravens then will gather ’bout To find your eyes and pull them out.

From a Bible in 1172: 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. Amen.

PrintFrom a 13th Century Vatican document: The finished book before you lies; This humble scribe don’t criticize. Whoever takes away this book, May he never on Christ look. Whoever to steal this volume durst, May he be killed as one accursed. Whoever to steal this volume tries, Out with his eyes, out with his eyes!

Some medieval book curses got right to the point, like this one from 1461: Hanging will do for him who steals you.

PrintThese days, a lot of serious bibliophiles like bookplates. Fancy or plain, exotic or traditional, they offer a personalized way to identify the book’s owner that goes beyond merely writing a name inside the cover. If you want to remind a borrower how serious you are about books, you might even want to incorporate a whimsical book curse in your bookplate. It’s too late to recover the  book my ex-friend gave away, but now when I loan one out, I make a point of showing the borrower I’m serious about getting it back.

Click here to download my printable bookplates. Some of the designs are featured above.


Ancient Libraries


Clay tablet from the Library of Ashurbanipal

Not long after ancient people discovered writing, they also discovered the need to store all those handy written records. Whatever form the writing took—clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, parchment books—if it was thought to be important, they were collected and kept for future reference. Libraries exist to collect, organize, store, and sometimes share knowledge. Through the ages, there have been many reasons to establish libraries: the quest for knowledge, the control of information, the pleasure of reading, or the desire to do public good are just a few. While some libraries flourished in ancient times, others were accidentally destroyed or became the victims of libricide—the deliberate burning of books.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeyTreasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure set in the third century. Older and more mysterious than ancient Egypt, the strange kingdom of Dodrazeb ignites a Persian warrior’s curiosity when he leads an army to conquer it. Mesmerized by Dodrazeb’s puzzles, the warrior is determined to peel back its layers of secrets as a desperate princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What have they been hiding for thousands of years? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.


Clay tablet describing an asteroid impact in 3123 BCE

The oldest known libraries consisted of clay tablets in cuneiform script discovered in temple rooms in Sumer, some dating back to 2600 BCE. These archives, which mainly consisted of the records of commercial transactions or inventories, mark the end of prehistory and the start of history. Over 30,000 clay tablets from the Library of Ashurbanipal have been discovered at Nineveh providing modern scholars with an amazing wealth of Mesopotamian literary, religious, and administrative work dating from the seventh century BCE. Among the findings were astronomic/astrological texts, as well as standard lists used by scribes and scholars such as word lists, bilingual vocabularies, lists of signs and synonyms, and lists of medical diagnoses.

library-alexandriaOne of the most famous of all ancient libraries is the one constructed in Alexandria, Egypt. Legend says that Alexander the Great was inspired to build a library to contain all the works of the nations he conquered and have them translated into Greek. Alexander didn’t live to see it built, but his successor Ptolemy I began building it about 306 BCE. A prototype of the modern research university, this library was established to focus on research and become an academy for scholars. It attracted scholars by offering free room, board, servants, and salaries. This changed when Alexandria came under the rule of Roman emperors who restricted intellectual freedom.

alexandria_libraryWith rooms for acquisitions and cataloguing, the library held between 400,000 and 700,000 scrolls including works from Assyria, Greece, Persia, Egypt, India, and many other nations. The library acquired high quality items including the best, most authoritative original works. Any works not written in Greek were translated. The library took its mission to obtain a copy of every book ever written very seriously, and employed some rather unethical tactics to make it happen. Acquisitions of materials were made three ways: stealing and confiscation, borrowing and copying (with the library keeping the original and returning a copy), and purchasing. Even though some items were purchased from booksellers, the library often forced the sale of books in exchange for food rather than currency.

A casualty of wars, riots, and social upheavals over several centuries, the magnificent library at Alexandria suffered the same fate as many other libraries throughout history. Its destruction has become a symbol for the loss of cultural knowledge. What a tragedy!


Eyeglasses: An Invention Made Necessary by Books

ancient_eyeglassesSpectacles became common after Guttenburg’s invention of the printing press in the mid-1500’s. Printing with movable type meant even common people could afford books and marked the beginning of widespread need to correct vision with eyeglasses.

I started wearing corrective lenses at the age of nine, when near-sightedness began to have a negative impact on my constant reading. I progressed from eyeglasses to contact lenses, then had lasik surgery to correct near-sightedness. Now I’m back to eyeglasses so I can see how to drive, but I don’t need them for reading. Yet. But that day is coming, I know.

Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin KeySet in the third century, Treasures of Dodrazeb: The Origin Key is a historical sword-and-science fantasy adventure. A Persian warrior’s curiosity is ignited when he leads an invasion into Dodrazeb, a strange isolated kingdom that possesses incredible technology. Ancient Dodrazeb’s puzzling choice to hide from the world draws the warrior deeper into layers of mysteries as its princess does everything she can to expel the invaders. What are the Dodrazebbians so desperate to keep hidden? Get your copy on! Available in both e-book and paperback.

nimrudlensThe Nimrud Lens, a 3,000-year-old piece of crystal an inch and one-half in diameter, is the oldest known man-made lens. Found in the ruins of ancient Nineveh, it is made of polished rock crystal. Experts are unsure if it was merely decorative or used to improve vision. Archaeologists have unearthed glass lenses in Egypt and Mesopotamia dating back to 3000 BCE ground out from rock crystal, but they were probably merely decorative and not used to correct faulty vision. The same polished crystals ancients used to start fires probably evolved into handy reading stones (magnifiers) for scribes who spent their days reading, writing, and copying documents.

Nero_emeraldThe Roman Emperor Nero viewed gladiators fighting to the death through an emerald. If large enough, the emerald could have been a natural magnifier, but it may also have provided relief from bright sunlight like modern sunglasses. The Chinese have been credited for developing lenses worn on the face about 2,000 years ago, but they were used to protect from evil, not to correct vision deficiencies. Beware the evil eye!

reading-stoneDeveloped in the 13th century, the earliest spectacles were produced by glaziers in Venice, Italy, but the identity of the inventor is unknown. Lenses in these first eyeglasses were made from quartz or rock crystal and produced by gold craftsmen. The first spectacles had quartz lenses because optical glass had not been developed. The lenses were set into bone, metal or even leather mountings, often shaped like two small magnifying glasses with handles riveted together typically in an inverted V shape that could be balanced on the bridge of the nose.


From the time they were invented, the biggest problem with eyeglasses was the difficulty of keeping them in place on the face. In the 17th century, Spanish spectacle makers tried silk ribbons attached to the frames and then looped over the ears. Spanish and Italian missionaries carried the idea to China where the Chinese attached little ceramic or metal weights to the strings instead of making loops. In 1730 a London optician named Edward Scarlett perfected the use of rigid sidepieces that rested atop the ears, an improvement that spread rapidly. For someone with uneven ears, I bet those sidepieces were torture.

ancient_spectacles2Self-conscious about wearing glasses, French aristocrats generally didn’t use them in public. In Spain, spectacles were popular because it was thought that glasses made one look more important and dignified, probably because they were an expensive luxury item. Affluent and literate colonial Americans imported their eyeglasses from Europe, costing as much as $200 in the early 1700’s. Benjamin Franklin developed the bifocal in the 1780’s so he wouldn’t have to keep changing between two pairs.

In the 1800’s most glasses were sold in hardware stores until jewelers gradually took over the dispensing of spectacles. Methods for determining an eyeglasses prescription didn’t yet exist, so people would try on one after another until they found a pair that worked for them. I wonder how much of their decision was influenced by the style of the frames?

Do you wear corrective lenses? How would your life be different if they had never been invented? What would you do if you couldn’t read because of poor eyesight? Leave a comment!