The market for non-fiction has slumped, but there was a noticeable spike in fiction sales following the UK government’s lockdown announcement on 23 March. Demand for Camus’sThe Plague is currently outstripping supply, despite two recent reprints by Penguin Classics. Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light was at one point selling a copy every 2.7 seconds. ‘There’s never been a better time to read War and Peace,’ the Week declared.
But – in an echo of the plot of The Name of the Rose – being touched by books, and touching them, may not be safe. Every new surface we come into contact with is a threat, potentially contaminated with the novel coronavirus. And a book consists of surface upon surface, all very thin, all waiting to be touched and turned. The Mirror and the Light’s 900 pages have a formidable amount of surface area (including front matter and covers, that’s approximately 38 square metres; many people are under lockdown in flats smaller than that).
New books arriving through your letterbox are one thing, but what about used ones, or copies that have circulated through many pairs of hands? Public libraries are a particularly hazardous vector of disease; places where the most vulnerable (the elderly) mix with the least likely to observe social distancing protocols or keep their bodily fluids to themselves (the very young). Even so, libraries were only belatedly added to the list of public venues to be closed, two days after gyms, pubs and theatres.
And there remains the fraught question of how to deal with stock returned by users. How long do books continue to pose a threat? Public Health England’s guidance, issued on 26March, recommending that library books be quarantined for 24 hours had to be rapidly revised. It was based on findings published in the New England Journal of Medicine about the length of time the coronavirus could survive on cardboard. Library professionals were quick to point out that most lending stock has protective plastic covers, on which the survival time is 72 hours.
In the late 19th century, as public libraries grew, so did anxieties about their threat to public health. Scarlet fever, smallpox and tuberculosis were thought to be spread through germ-ridden books, and various methods of disinfection were used, including steam, formaldehyde solution and heated carbolic crystals. (The practice was revived this year, in less elaborate form, as libraries began disinfecting books with antibacterial wipes.) Demands that libraries should be closed were resisted, but the 1907 Public Health Amendment Act threatened heavy fines for anyone infected with disease who borrowed books.
Truisms about reading’s beneficial effects are now so pervasive that it’s disconcerting to see novels as potentially hazardous objects. We seldom focus on them as objects at all, at least when they’re in use, since the reading of fiction is supposed to effect a kind of dematerialisation of the page. If you’re immersed in a work of fiction, transported into its world, the one thing you stop noticing is the papery thing you’re holding. (Sometimes this, too, has been seen as dangerous: There was a moral panic in the 18th century about impressionable female readers getting carried away by fiction.) Novels are strange things, whose trick is to make themselves disappear. There are exceptions, of course: books with movable parts or awkward formats demand to be read with the hands as much as the eyes. Dealing with fragile or rare books similarly focuses the attention on touch, turning pages gingerly and taking extreme care not to cause damage to them.
This current situation, too, changes what it means to interact with a book, though in this case it’s we who are at risk of harm. Reading – like everything else, it transpires – involves hands and bodies in contact with a foreign object. What unconscious gestures do you perform while absorbed in a book? How many times to do you absent-mindedly touch your face, or lick your fingers to turn the page? And how long is it since you washed your hands?