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When I was twelve, I found my uncle’s well-worn copy of The Hobbit on a shelf in my grandpa’s garage. I spent the next couple weeks following Bilbo Baggins as he traveled There and Back Again. It was even better than Ralph Bakshi’s animated version I’d seen a couple years earlier. The actual book itself was almost as fascinating as the story inside. It had that old book smell, almost vanilla with a hint of decaying wood. Tolkien’s painting of Bilbo coming to the huts of the raft-elves via floating barrel decorated the cover. Inside was Thorin’s map, adorned with mysterious runes and a dragon sure to be encountered during the adventure.
Running through the pages of half the book was a small tunnel. It began along the edge opposite the spine and wound itself deeper into the book. The width was so uniform it almost could have been made by a drill, but it curved around in different directions.
“What happened to this book?” I asked my grandpa.
“It must have been a worm.”
Who’s Hungry For A Good Story?
It was years before I figured out that worms don’t eat books. No, it was probably a grub that helped itself to a few servings of my uncle’s book. The larva of Lasioderma serricorne, commonly known as the cigarette beetle, are long and soft like worms, but they’ve got a handful of legs and tiny little jaws with which to burrow through books. As the name implies, they’re known for eating tobacco in addition to classic fantasy novels.
Cockroaches are also big fans of literature. While cigarette beetles are mainly into the paper it’s printed on, roaches love every element of a good novel. They’ll eat the pages, the cardboard binding and the glue that holds it all together. Leather or cloth-bound books are considered fine dining to certain members of order Blattodea. They are, unfortunately, messy eaters and tend to leave behind stains.
The scientific name for silverfish is Lepisma saccharina, because they love to eat starchy, carb-heavy foods. So begins and ends your education on the nutritional value of paper, which these tiny insects are just crazy about. They’re a little pickier than cockroaches, but will sometimes munch on the bindings of your favorite books if they’ve got a nice flavor.
Booklice, as the name implies, are into books. Literally. They’re particularly into the classics, the older the better. They like the paste used in their binding, and they love any mold or fungus that might be growing in and on ill-maintained tomes
I’m Going To Have To Ask You To Leave
Thankfully, it’s pretty easy to avoid a bug invasion in your library. Modern conveniences like climate control and decent ventilation do most of the work for you. Very modest housekeeping, also called not living in your own filth, generally takes care of the rest. Insects usually go for neglected books in dank spaces, like The Hobbit in my grandpa’s garage. The bookshelf in your bedroom is probably safe.
If you do find a bug among your collection, don’t panic. Look for piles of mysterious dust near your books. This could be bug excrement, also called frass, and is a sign that you need to take care of business. The telltale brown stains of roach feces are another indicator that the time has come.
Whatever you do, don’t spray your books with pesticide. Have some respect for the written word, will you? Not only can it maim and disfigure your books, it can potentially turn your cherished Agatha Christie collection into a stack of dangerous poisoned paper, like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Besides, it doesn’t even work. The eggs tend to remain safe. They’ll hatch and want revenge for their slain parents.
The absolute easiest thing to do is just to freeze your books. Bag them up and pop them in the freezer for a few days. Thaw them slowly in the refrigerator. Say goodbye to your arthropod housemates and fellow book-lovers.
Don’t freeze books bound in leather. The fats may rise to the surface, causing bloom which looks like mold. Books with elaborate covers made of different materials should also be kept out of the freezer, as the differences in their rate of freezing can cause damage. If you’ve got books that can’t be frozen, you can buy insect traps. There are pheromone lures available for specific varieties of book eaters.
I’m going to admit something here, and I hope it doesn’t make you think less of me: I love bugs. I think they’re super cool, like little robot monsters, and I could spend all day watching them and talking about them.
But I’d prefer it if they stayed out of my books.
George Billions is a freelance writer and the author of several books, including Fidget Spinners Destroyed My Family and Buying Illegal Bugs with Bitcoin.