I was stunned a few months ago, to find nearly every one of my books offered to all comers on a pirate book site. I’ve since learned, of course, that there are hundreds of these sites, offering poorly scanned copies of books in print for next to nothing. Needless to say, none of these sites returns a cent to the authors of the books they sell.
What to do? For thousands of years, monasteries, libraries and individual book owners employed choice and far-reaching curses to curb book theft. In Egypt, for instance, sometime between the first and third centuries, a papyrus warned would-be vandals:
“I am the guardian of the letters. The reed pen wrote me, with a right hand and a knee. If you use me for anything, assist another. If your rub me out, I will slander you before Euripides. So desist.
The middle ages specialized in dire scenarios for fiends who stooped low enough to pilfer someone else’s book. Here’s a dandy example:
“Whoever steals this book let him die the death; let be him be frizzled in a pan; may the falling sickness rage within him; may he be broken on the wheel and be hanged.”
I don’t know about you. But frizzling sounds like something I’d rather not chance! Churches, of course, went corporeal punishment one better, offering up damnation to those callous enough to purloin God’s word:
“Should anyone by craft of any device whatever abstract this book from this place may his soul suffer, in retribution for what he has done, and may his name be erased from the book of the living and not recorded among the Blessed.”
But would threats, no matter how deliciously venomous or righteously indignant, have any impact on today’s nefarious book pilferers? On the anonymous, greedy techno-nerds who spend a few minutes copying what it has taken authors years and years to write? Or even on the readers tempted by downloads that cost a fraction of the ebooks that pay royalties to their authors? I doubt it.
Still, there’s a certain satisfaction in a well-formulated book curse. I intend to revive this nicely nasty tradition, if only on my website. I just wish I were a proficient enough hacker to wangle one onto pirate sites as a warning to visitors. Because who knows? Maybe there’s some mojo left in ancient spells like this one:
“This book belongs to none but me
There is my name inside to see.
To steal this book, if you should try,
it’s by the throat that you’ll hang high.
And ravens then will gather ’bout
To find your eyes and pull them out.
And when you’re screaming “oh, oh, oh!”
Remember, you deserved this woe.