The Quarantine of Books & A Charming Fantasy Novel

Books displayed back to front at Waterstones.

This is a tragically strange time.  Some of us stay home as much as possible to protect ourselves and others from coronavirus, while others have perhaps been too much out and about.  Although 120,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 as of this week, the reopening of many states has tragically driven the number of cases up among people under 45, who make up 55% of new cases.  This is largely, I suspect, because the initial education about the virus emphasized the vulnerability of older people with underlying health conditions.  In reality, all of us are vulnerable.

But today I will talk about the relatively light issue of the quarantine of  books.

When libraries opened for curbside pickup, or in some cases just plain opened, librarians emphasized  that returned books would be quarantined for 48 hours.  Bookstores have also been careful,  offering curbside servide, and now some are  cautiously reopening.  Prairie Lights in Iowa City is still closed, but Barnes and Noble is open. And  B&N has rearranged the bookshelves to allow for better social distancing, and certainly a greater feeling of safety.  

What I have noticed is that English bookstores seem to be stricter than the U.S. about the handling of books.  I was fascinated by an article in The Guardian about Waterstones’ displays of books back-to-front.  They hoped people would read blurbs on the back and decide to buy books without picking them up.

This would be impossble for me.  I am so often drawn by the cover, and I also read a few pages before I buy books.  Blurbs are fun but are not enough.

At Barnes and Noble, where I confess I have only hovered around the books in the front of the store, I  constantly sanitize my hands.   But of course one cannot sanitize the books.

Later, as I was leaving, I noticed a sign above a small shelf asking us to put books there.  I’m not sure if that applies to all books we touch, or only to those we carry around and then decide not to buy.   In the old days, some people read books in the cafe and then obnoxiously parked them on top of the trash can next to the dirty dishes bin.  Now those needed to be quarantined!

I am inconsistent about quarantining new books, but bloggers have made me more aware of this practice.  I did put away my latest new book for 48 hours.  Is it decontaminated? Tell me what you’re doing about this issue!

A NOVEL FOR LOVERS OF ANCIENT CULTURES.  I recently picked up a brilliant fantasy novel by Marie Brennan, Turning Darkness into Light. In many ways, this offbeat novel is about the difficulty of translation from an ancient language and the ethics of the sale of archaelogical relics.

In Brennan’s charming novel, set in a fantastic society that resembles English society in the 19th century,  the wealthy lords and ladies want to buy archaeological artifacts from the ancient Draconean civilization. The Draconeans are basically winged human beings,  with some characteristics of dragons, and there is widespread prejudice against them.   And when Lord Glenleigh, known to be prejudiced against Draconeans, acquires a set of ancient Draconean tablets, he hires Audrey Camherst to translate them.  This savvy linguist discovers it is an ancient epic and recruits  Kudshayn, a Draconean priest, to help her and put the epic in context. 

If you like books about books, such as A. S. Byatt’s Possession and Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Book, you will enjoy thiis splendid, sophisticated novel, told in the form of documents such as diaries, letters, translations of the epic, and amusing footnotes.

A fantasy classic?  I think so.