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The Ancient Entomological Bookworm: A New Chapter in the Shelf Life of Books

Cat Lambert

Columbia University

The ancient entomological bookworm was a bibliographical phenomenon that book users encountered largely through its mysterious traces. This paper argues that the material circumstances of the bookworm shaped the poetic landscape of Roman Imperial literature.  A name given to negative, vermiculate space, the bookworm functions as a way of envisioning decay and violence done to material texts—chapters of a book’s “shelf life” that fall under the category of “non-reading.” Attention to the very real ways in which bookworms shaped the written word deepens our insight into the poetic representations of books and readers.

By tracing the bookworm in ancient sources, this paper taps into a materially specific historical reality so as to defamiliarize the modern metaphor of “bookworm” and illuminate aspects of ancient book culture that encompass but also extend beyond reading into broader practices of textual handling, storage, and destruction (Howley 2017). As book historical work in other fields has shown (e.g. Price 2012), reading is but one among a number of practices to which material texts may be put. Moreover, understanding ancient reading requires careful attention to representations within historical, sociocultural contexts (Johnson 2000, McCutcheon 2015, Howley 2018, Frampton 2016, 2018). Tracing the bookworm—a meaningful yet understudied agent in ancient textual culture—offers us a way to construct a more capacious sociology of texts in antiquity.

I begin by assessing the evidence for the ancient historical bookworm. A range of Roman authors (e.g. Horace, Vitruvius, Ovid, Pliny, Martial) note that bookworms (tineae/blattae, used interchangeably) feed on papyrus book-rolls; Juvenal (7.24-26) may suggest that bookworms also consumed parchment. Papyrological, codicological, and microbiological evidence supports these literary sources (e.g. PLond 256, Hedges 2013). Lucian suggests that ancient readers were sensitive to the physical shape of wormholes bored through books (διαβεβρῶσθαι, κατακεκόφθαι, Ignorant Book Collector, 1).  The evidence shows that bookworms tend to emerge from a nexus of imagery that associates the creature with decay (caries), age, and disuse (situs). In particular, the historical bookworm is directly tied to practical conditions of book storage (e.g. P.Ross.Georg. 3.1), which prompt readers and writers to question what happens to books in the dark.

I then turn from the historical bookworm to the poetic imagery and rhetoric of bookworms, showing how they operate at interfaces between the use, disuse, and abuse of material texts. In contrast to Roman book-burning—rejected by Roman literary culture as an act of violence (Howley 2017)—bookworms are treated as violent not because they efface texts (like fire) but rather because they deface them in a dark space when the material text no longer has contact with a reader. Ovid, for example, taps into the bookworm’s defacement of texts to evert for the reader the psychological trauma of exile (Epist. Ex Pont. 1.72), likening his mental deterioration to bookworm damage—signs manifested through negative space by an evanescent culprit who hollows out the liber/Ovid from the inside.

While bookworms enter the Roman literary landscape with Horace and Ovid, they cluster around the turn of the 1st century CE. In later imperial authors such as Juvenal, Martial, Lucian, and Ausonius, the poetics of the bookworm become integrated into a larger ethics of textual practices. This rhetoric closely links bookworms to a broader social network, foregrounding readers, handlers, and patrons—not authors—as possessing ethical agency in imperial book culture. Like the oblique passage of the bookworm through the papyrus roll, the idea of the bookworm in ancient literature unites perceptions and anxieties about books and their readers.

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The Lives of Books

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