Fires, Bookmarks, and Leaky Privies


February 3, 2023 by libroshombre

            It’s sometimes interesting while reading a book to reflect upon the chain of prior readings that led you there.  My current books include Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon” and Anthony Everitt’s, “Nero: Matricide, Music, and Murder in Imperial Rome,” and they traced back to an encounter several weeks ago with “Apparently the Brontës All Died Young Because They Spent Their Lives Drinking Graveyard Water,” a Literary Hub article by Emily Temple.  The link from one to the others was the concept of cleanliness, if you can accept that the basking in the orderliness of “Goodnight Moon” is a form of cleansing. 

            Fire is, too, and the worst one hit during Nero’s reign.  As Everitt described it, “Rome was a maze of narrow, winding lanes and passages and tiny squares.  The rich lived in inward-looking, windowless houses ringed with shops that distanced them from the noise and bustle of street life, while the poor rented rooms in gimcrack apartment blocks as many as eight stories high, which had a tendency to collapse unexpectedly.”  Rome was largely a wooden “city “stuffed full of flammables,” and Nero’s fire burned for nine days.  Afterwards, the city’s million inhabitants found that “between 15 and 20 percent of the city was totally destroyed,” and most of the rest badly damaged, according Everitt.  Pernicious rumors led to the public blaming the blaze on Nero, who in fact effectively led efforts to fight the blaze.  Unfortunately, he soon thereafter sang and played his lyre at a public benefit concert, and a nasty legend was born.

            Grant Snider’s “I Will Judge you By Your Bookshelf,” is a gift I received from a friend who knows me well.  Snider’s an “orthodontist by day and an artist by night,” and a pronounced book-lover.  His collection of bibliophilic cartoons are so satisfying that I read only a couple pages at a time to savor his humor and insights, such as “Some of us surround ourselves with books.  We collect them, decorate with them, are inspired by them, and treat our books as sacred objects.”   However, he states, “I will use anything as a bookmark.  Some potential bookmarks: Post-it notes, grocery lists, feathesr, bonsai tree, another book.”  I’ll bookmark using grocery lists or any loose scrap of paper, and other books, but Post-it notes are forbidden since minute traces of gummy residue are always left behind.  Being a nightly bedtime reader of the Nero Wolfe mysteries, I’ve learned that book-loving detective’s A-D system for selecting how he kept his place in books.  As described by Archie, his sidekick narrator, when Wolfe, who spends 4 hours daily cultivating his orchids, comes down to the office from the plant rooms at six o’clock, he picks up his current book and opens to his place before he rings for beer, and if his place was marked with a thin strip of gold, five inches long and an inch wide, which was presented to him some years ago by a grateful client, the book is an A. If he picks up the book before he rings, but his place was marked with a piece of paper, it is a B. If he rings and then picks up the book, and he had dog-eared a page to mark his place, it is a C. If he waits until Fritz has brought the beer and he has poured to pick up the book, and his place was dog-eared, it’s a D.”

            That despicable dog-earing has put a serious dent into my esteem for Wolfe, but after years enjoying his eccentricities and wordplay, I have to forgive this trespass.  I’ve personally experienced bookmark practices far worse than mere dog-earing.  Like Washington, D.C. librarian Anna Holmes, I’ve seen cheese used as bookmarks in returned library books.  According to article, “Bacon, Cheese Slices, and Sawblades: The Strangest Bookmarks Left At Libraries,” someone anonymously (for privacy reasons, library circulation systems are designed too delete who borrowed a book once its checked back in) and regularly returned books containing American cheese slices to Holmes’ library.  I’ve discovered rashers of raw bacon in library books, just like Salt Lake City librarian Josh Hanagarne, who has also found “a lock of hair, like, the size a serial killer would take from a victim.”  He also found “a polaroid of a cat wearing a leather mask,” but I can one up that.  A public library I directed 4,000 miles from here had a drive-by bookdrop built into an interior wall into which books fell several feet.  One book popped open and out came a suggestive letter and revealing photos of a male mailer.  Since the book borrower’s name and address were on the envelope, I reassembled the letter and returned it to her when she next came, hopefully allowing her to assume its contents hadn’t been seen. The most memorable library bookmark was the entire cash amount for a previous year’s permanent fund dividend from an unknown recipient found in a large zippered bookbag used by the Noel Wien Library Regional Services department.  The bags were filled with a dozen or more books and mailed to families living in the bush.  When this particular bag was returned, the books were removed without noticing that cash had fallen to the bottom.  Later, when the bag was reused, the money was found, and a general message asking if they’d misplaced anything went out to the bush patrons, but no claimers came forward and the Borough got a little richer.

            There are jillions of legitimate bookmarks in the world – your public library is loaded with free ones – all intended to protect books and keep them clean.  I’m sure the Brontës would have preferred that copies of their novels are kept pristine by their readers, even though when it comes to cleanliness, those authors probably died from drinking the foulest of waters.   In her story about the Brontës’ hydration habits, Temple noted that, “Officially, they all suffered from tuberculosis, or complications thereof, and unofficially, they all died of grief for one another, but as I learned this week, apparently there was a very real and disturbing factor that contributed to their lifelong illnesses and early deaths: they spent their lives drinking water contaminated by the local graveyard—and possibly the local privies, too.”  Emily and her brother Branwell both died in 1848 (aged 30 and 31, respectively), Anne died in 1849 (aged 29), and Charlotte in 1855 (aged 38).  Patrick, their father, outlived them all, and, noting that the average age of death in their village, Haworth, was 25.8, he decided to investigate and hired Benjamin Babbage, a young English engineer and scientist who was also the eldest son of Charles Babbage, the inventor of the concept of programmable computers.

            Babbage later emigrated to Australia where he became a prominent politician and explorer, but back in Haworth, his investigation revealed that “there were not enough privies for the population, and those they had were filthy, not properly drained, and—bizarrely—much too public. ‘Two of the privies used, by a dozen families each, are in the public street,’ he wrote, “not only within view of the houses, but exposed to the gaze of passersby, whilst a third, as though even such a situation were too private, is perched upon an eminence, commanding the whole length of the main street.” The cesspit beneath this privy would sometimes overflow into the street; a water tap was two yards away from its door.  Then there was the graveyard—which sat on a hill, right in front of the parsonage where the Brontës lived—which Babbage found to be overstuffed, badly laid out, and poorly oxygenated, so much so that the decomposing material from the graves had filtered into the town’s water supply. The long-term exposure to harmful bacteria would have made the Brontës weaker, shorter, and more susceptible to other diseases.             Last week I read a report in about Amou Haji, reportedly “the World’s Dirtiest Man,” who lived in an Iranian shack and refused to bathe with soap and water for over 60 years, preferring nightly “fire baths” from bonfire smoke.  At his fellow villagers’ urging, the 94-year-old bathed last fall and soon died.  This brings us back to Nero, the reputed firebug, who appreciated reading, had a healthy sense of humor and might have chuckled at our local library’s staff t-shirts that read, “Bookmarks Are For Quitters.”

2 thoughts on “Fires, Bookmarks, and Leaky Privies

  1. Mary Ann Eininger says:

    Oh what fun! Yes, yes and yes! I miss you, but reading that was almost as good as going for a glass of wine…..


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