Steinbeck on lice

Rob posting Burns’s To a Louse reminded me of this passage. It’s from a John Steinbeck letter, but I encountered it in John Carey’s brilliant anthology, The Faber Book of Science.

The Morgan Library has a very fine 11th-century Launcelot in perfect condition. I was going over it one day and turned to the rubric of the first owner dated 1221, the rubric a squiggle of very thick ink. I put a glass on it and there imbedded deep in the ink was the finest crab louse, pfithira pulus, I ever saw. He was perfectly preserved even to his little claws. I knew I would find him sooner or later because the people of that period were deeply troubled with lice and other little beasties — hence the plagues. I called the curator over and showed him my find and he let out a cry of sorrow. ‘I’ve looked at that rubric a thousand times,’ he said. ‘Why couldn’t I have found him?’

I notice, btw, that the book now has a rather gaudy cover that makes it look like a textbook, whereas my copy has a fabulous photo of ‘Mabel and Alexander Graham Bell kissing inside the frame of a tetrahedral kite’.

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