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From the archives

Pax Atlantica

NATO’s long-lasting relevance

A Larger Role for Unions

Organized labour may be shrinking but the rhetoric is still upbeat

This United League

Will not die, will not perish

Wormholes

Thinking out of the glass jar

Kyle Wyatt

Some 380,000 species of beetles exist around the world, with over 8,100 of them present in Canada. Any number of these insects lay eggs that turn into larvae that bore into book bindings and spines, nibbling their way through paper and destroying collections. And when they do that, we call them “bookworms.”

While Aristotle described a tiny creature occasionally encountered in codices —“like a scorpion without a tail, exceedingly small”— the beetles, termites, and moths that can wreak havoc on the printed page didn’t merit much attention until there were . . . well, printed pages. Bookworms do not eat vellum manuscripts, and so it wasn’t until the early modern period that entomological texts began to classify “the silver-colour’d Book-worm,” as George Adams put it in Micrographia illustrata, “often found scudding among Books and Papers.”

In 1667, the natural philosopher and jack of all trades Robert Hooke likened bookworms to “the teeth of Time.” Two centuries later, J. F. M. Dovaston continued the metaphor when he complained, “Their tasteless tooth will tear and taint / The Poet, Patriot, Sage, or Saint.” In his comprehensive The Enemies of Books, William Blades called such critters “the mortal enemy of the bibliophile” and credited the “extensive adulteration of modern paper” for mitigating a vexing problem. “His instinct forbids him to eat the china clay, the bleaches, the plaster of Paris, the sulphate of barytes, the scores of adulterants now used to mix with the fibre,” the English printer and bibliographer wrote of the pest.

It was also in the early modern period that “bookworm” entered the English language as an informal, often pejorative term for someone who idly reads. For Lord Macaulay, the British historian and Liberal member of Parliament, “bookworm” was synonymous with “a twaddler, a man unfit for active life.” Charles Merivale equated the term with sophistry. But it was Ben Jonson, writing back in 1601, who really captured the word’s depreciative sentiment: “a whoore-sonne Book-worme” was little more than “a Candle-waster.”

Even as collectors battled the conditions that bred infestations, the sobriquet assumed a more inviting connotation — as a term of endearment. The typical bookworm may not have been especially refined, William Hazlitt conceded, but he or she was “amiable as well as enviable.”

In 1901, the Jesuit priest and Georgetown University librarian J. F. X. O’Conor included a live captive bookworm — a bug, not a person — as part of the Books and Bookmaking Exhibition, hosted by the National Arts Club in New York. “Having been pursued to his lair and laid in chains by the greatest living authority on his kind,” the New York Times reported, “he is about the size of a barleycorn.”

The newspaper’s satirical critic considered the confinement of “Master Bookworm” to be nothing short of shameful, because so much schlock —“the rising flood of Colonial Romances and Psychological Novels, not to speak of the daily circulations of Esteemed Contemporaries”— warranted destruction. “What is now needed is a Society of Bookworm Breeders, who would grow bookworms in quantity and wherever their services are needed supply bookworms at a price for those who own the wrong sort of books.”

Unlike Father O’Conor, the Literary Review of Canada decided to let the bookworm out of the glass jar, to set it free in the form of a weekly supplement, featuring exclusive reviews, original poetry, and other good stuff about the magazine and its contributors. We did this a year ago now, and though Bookworm has thousands of readers across the country and around the world, I’ve talked with several print subscribers recently who seemed unaware of this additional source of Canadian books coverage.

So let me say to those who may not know: we have a wonderful newsletter called Bookworm, which we have delivered to email inboxes every Tuesday morning since July 25, 2023. In that time, we have featured scores of reviews — of memoirs and histories, of literary fiction and graphic novels, published by big and small houses alike — that complement the hundreds of reviews that have appeared in these pages. We have run Q & As with our talented cover artists, bonus material from our poets and essayists, and much more. For many readers, the highlight each week has been the opening illustration by Tom Chitty, depicting our titular wiggler in hilarious situations, always with a good book.

Bookworm doesn’t take long to read, usually about five minutes. And the latest two issues are always free, though we don’t say no to those who wish to support our work with a monthly or yearly contribution. I’m biased, but I encourage you to sign up at reviewcanada.ca/bookworm.

Kyle Wyatt is the editor-in-chief of the Literary Review of Canada.

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