Inside the Dark Library: A Review of Book Tombs by Erik W. Steinhauer

Eric W. Steinhauer is a household name among German-speaking bibliophiles. Steinhauer, a lawyer-cum-theologian-cum-librarian, has carved out a niche for himself over the years as an expert on the dark side of books and libraries: libraries as places of death and burial; contagious and deadly books; the association between libraries, the Devil, and monsters… His books are perhaps best characterized as non-fictional spinoffs of The Name of the Rose, with each of them discussing a different aspect of the grisly association between books and death. After several such volumes, published from 2006 onward, he brought all of these topics together into a primer on the dark side of the book, which came out in 2014 at the publisher Lambert Schneider.

Book Tombs (Büchergrüfte), as the volume is called, is fairly short at 134 pages and might best be thought of as an essay about the future of the book. Steinhauer is writing not least from the position of a library director who is unsatisfied with the role that libraries are increasingly playing in a digital world: places to hang out and work on one’s laptop, with perhaps a paper notebook alongside, but with increasingly few actual books being perused by the patrons. Afraid of being reduced to insignificance over the course of the 21st century, many libraries are trying to make themselves as friendly as possible to the reader, in order to attract a varied clientele.

Steinhauer understands where this reasoning comes from, but claims that the nice and fluffy approach is insufficient to secure the future of the library. Instead, he makes a proposal that is both simple and ingenious: in order to have a future, libraries must purposely cultivate their dark aspects. In his own words, “the library of the future will be morbid, or it will cease to be.” He slowly develops this idea during the course of the book, and only states it clearly at the end, so let’s first follow him along the way.

He starts with a chapter on the most obvious connection between books and death, which is at the same time perhaps the most forgotten one. In a time when most public libraries are large well-lit spaces with light music playing in the background, we have forgotten that libraries used to be places to preserve human remains. The library-as-burial-place has a rich history – Steinhauer traces it back to ancient Rome, where strict rules on intramural interment were sometimes loosened to allow burial in a library, down through the Middle Ages and right up to the 19th century. The connection worked both ways, so that just as people could be buried in a library, a library could be constructed on top of a burial site. Even today, libraries within secularized churches preserve the remains of people who wanted to be buried close to God, but instead found themselves beneath the Geography section.

Human bones could also be present in libraries as a memento mori; St. Jerome is usually depicted in his study with a skull nearby, such as in this painiting by Jan Massys.

Of course, any kind of burial is dark, and personally, I could hardly wish for a better place to have my remains interred than beneath the right kind of library. Then again, it is hard to say what the scores of people who were interred in a library against their will would comment on such burial practices. Before “cabinets of curiosities” were divided up into museums and libraries in the 18th century, it was common for this sort of library to include skeletons and other human remains as anatomical exhibits. These were so common that it’s hard to find much data on them, since few contemporaries would note such trivial details. The human bones were often of unknown origin, but it’s reasonable to assume that many belonged to executed criminals, whose mortal remains could legally be used for scientific purposes. Less common, but still not unheard of, were books bound in human skin, oftentimes exposés of the lives of famous criminals, bound in their personal skin to enhance the reading experience.

One other peculiar creature that Steinhauer has brought back from obscurity is the library mummy, which was a common feature of European libraries between the 17th and 19th centuries, when most of them were relocated to museums. The connection between books and mummies is multi-layered and Steinhauer revels in its unwrapping [pun intended]. Apart from gracing many library halls as Oriental curiosities, mummies were themselves both texts (as the wooden coffins were covered in inscriptions) and sources of texts (especially Books of the Dead, which were regularly tucked into the wrappings). Lastly, it continues to be debated by historians whether mummies were in fact used in the 19th century to make paper. As the story goes, the US imported mummy wrappings from Egypt on at least one occasion to feed its booming paper industry; the story is likely exaggerated, but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato.

If it weren’t for the Egyptians, we wouldn’t have the Liber Linteus Zagrabiensis. The only extant book in the Etruscan language, written on cloth, was reused at some point as mummy wrappings.

Another creature given prominence in Book Tombs is the library vampire. Here, Steinhauer again shows himself an expert on the subject, even though the reader is occasionally unsure how vampirology ties into the general framework of his book. At first, we get the impression that vampires belong into this narrative because they were often written about in books; of course, the same can be said of any other dark and paranormal phenomenon, ever. Only later are we directed to the prominent position that books and libraries tend to play in all the major vampire novels. In a detour into literary criticism, Steinhauer highlights a literary device that was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula: at the end of the novel, Stoker’s characters are amazed that apart from their own notes and diaries, they cannot find any evidence that the action which had just transpired actually took place. In this tongue-in-cheek way, Stoker underlined that vampires are nothing but paper beings, daemons conjured up from books and entirely dependent on them.

In a book which discusses the connection between books and death, an obvious question is, what about the death of books themselves? Steinhauer briefly mentions mold, as well as the “slow fire” that is consuming old books printed on acidic paper. Soon after that, however, we reach the subject of modern-day destruction of books, especially by libraries during their deaccessioning. Here the book is at its weakest, as Steinhauer isn’t quite sure what his opinion is, so he appears to be trying to cobble one together as he writes.

He admits quite candidly that German libraries trash enough books each year to fill a decent-sized university library. Is this good or bad? We’re not sure. He opens up the debate about whether libraries should aim to preserve books even if these aren’t being loaned out or consulted anymore. After a brief discussion, he concludes with a closing sentence, “it is reasonable to preserve old books,” which leaves a very lukewarm impression. He also occasionally slides into cynicism. For example, he remarks that thanks to the great losses of ancient literature during the Middle Ages, we can more easily discern the masterpieces of antiquity without them being obscured by the chaff of mediocre writers. Does this mean that it would be easier to appreciate the greatness of Dickens and Browning, had all the works of their less-notable Victorian contemporaries suddenly disappeared? If anything, I think the truth is the opposite.

Deaccessioning in action at the Humboldt University Library in Berlin.

Of course, Steinhauer is still writing from the position of a library director here. Is he intentionally sounding indecisive in order to avoid attracting the ire of his colleagues? Nicholson Baker created a storm when his book Double Fold came out in 2001, but Baker was a freelance novelist, an outsider, and thus could afford his campaign against libraries’ destruction of books. I imagine Steinhauer has his reasons why he prefers to tread lightly on such topics. Perhaps he also publishes more opinionated writings under a pseudonym somewhere. Only time will tell.

If books can be discarded and killed by their owners, they also have some power to return the favour. Here Steinhauer’s narrative again becomes gripping, as he discusses all the ways that books are able to harm and kill people, both in urban myths and in reality. His discussion of books as supposed carriers or germs and disease, which was a major public scare at the turn of the 20th century, feels remarkably prescient. After lounging in obscurity for a century, the books-as-disease-carriers myth has made a triumphant return during the Covid pandemic. At least here in Slovenia, libraries have instituted obligatory waiting periods before a returned book can be loaned out again. They have also mostly removed, to the great annoyance of yours truly, the shelves with free books which were usually on offer in front of the library door.

It turns out that paper mills were also major carriers of death and disease, this time for real. Before the production of paper from wood was invented, the raw material for paper tended to be old rags, or in other words, clothes which were either discarded by their owners or taken from the dead. Wars and epidemics provided fertile harvesting ground for the latter approach, but when piles of rags were carted from plague-ridden cities down to paper mills, the plague-carrying fleas came along for the ride. And just in case some workers survived the infectious illnesses, the survivors were later brought down by lung disease which was endemic in the dust-filled mills. – It just looks like a piece of paper, but several people had to die so that you could hold it in your hand.

Rag paper looks and feels much better than paper made of wood, but its beauty was paid for with the health of paper-mill workers. This makes it particularly ironic that one of the oldest books in my collection is a treatise on lung disease.

This, as I see it, is very close to the core message of Büchergrüfte. By stressing the ways that books killed and were killed for, the ways that they died and cheated death, and how they oftentimes contained death in their midst, Steinhauer imbues these seemingly trivial objects with a gravity that most of us hadn’t been aware of. It is this gravity which draws our gaze, and which, to extend the metaphor, makes it much harder to simply lift the books up and throw them away like common trash. It is the connection with death that, most importantly, commands respect. Steinhauer’s dictum, which I mentioned earlier, could thus be rephrased as follows: “the library of the future will command respect, or it will cease to be.”

Despite its occasional shortcomings, Steinhauer’s volume is, at the end of the day, a very valuable book. He reminds the reader that the Internet might be a great repository of texts, but only in a library can one find, well, books – books as objects that contain not just text, but also a (hi)story which connects the reader to his own past and those of other people who lived and died with this book before him. To conclude with an idea that Steinhauer plays with a little, but doesn’t quite articulate fully: a library is a place where knowledge becomes a physical object. It is a rock which serves to anchor our culture into place; it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. A library is a place that inspires awe at the vastness and variety of our past, and Book Tombs does its part in enhancing this sense of awe.


3 thoughts on “Inside the Dark Library: A Review of Book Tombs by Erik W. Steinhauer

  1. se non è vero, è ben trovato.

    That would seem to apply to much of this; I can’t turn up any references to burial in libraries, for example (which doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, but it’s suspicious). A delightful approach to library preservation, though! Also, Nicholson Baker is a hero of mine, and I always enjoy seeing librarians froth when Double Fold is brought up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • The part about burial in libraries seems to be pretty well-sourced, though I hadn’t heard any of these stories before as well. From Roman times, Steinhauer mentions Celsus, who was buried beneath his library at Ephesus, and a mention by Pliny the Younger in one of his letters of people buried in the library at Prusa:
      From the Renaissance, he mentions Celio Calcagnini’s tomb in Ferrara:
      From the 19th century, we have the case of Schiller, whose skull was kept in the Weimar library for some time. There are also one or two other examples, so library burial was probably never ubiquitous, but it did happen (reserved for the most ardent bibliophiles, I would imagine).
      And as for Baker, I can’t agree more. Steinhauer actually cites Double Fold in the sources, though as far as I can tell he doesn’t mention Baker in the text, so he probably just uses the book as one of his sources on paper acidification.

      Liked by 1 person

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