Bullet holes

Updated: May 7, 2019

Bullet Hole
By Permission of the Master and Fellows of St John's College, Cambridge

Here's a book in St John's Library - Rerum Germanicarum tomi III. 1688 (F.7.25) - that has ACTUAL bullet holes in it. Or at least that's what the catalogue description says. There are definitely holes, but it's not clear what caused them. They go all the way through a thick book with very heavy board covers, which indicates a lot of force. Some of them don't look exactly bullet shaped, though. Could they have been caused by a heavy implement or blade, perhaps? It's an intriguing mystery, but maybe one for a ballistics expert rather than a bibliographer.

It did made me think of two things, though: firstly, an email thread I saw recently about bullet damage to books, and in particular books that have reputedly saved people's lives. There's a famous copy of Rudyard Kipling's Kim in the Library of Congress that stopped a bullet and saved the life of a French Legionnaire in the battle of Verdun in the the First World War. He gave the book to Kipling in gratitude and the two entered into correspondence, with the author advising him to always carry a book of at least 350 pages in his breast pocket. (Which is a good point, you wonder how a flimsy paperback copy of Kim stopped a bullet, when this much heftier one in St John's library was completely pierced). But there are so many other similar stories of books, especially bibles, saving soldiers lives in the trenches that these seem like a cultural trope - part of the mythology of the book - as much as real events.

The second thing it brought to mind is Peter Newell's brilliant and quirky Hole Book, an

illustrated book from 1908 (Harper Brothers, New York), which is all about a bullet hole. There are more famous examples of children's books with holes now (Eric Carle's The Very Hungry Caterpillar, obviously) but Newell was playing weird and clever games with holes way before that. The story begins with a boy who accidentally fires a gun through the wall, making a hole which is not only depicted, but real, in the sense that it's an actual hole in the page. The bullet goes on to ricochet through the story, and also through the book itself, tracing a hole from first page to last. On each page it passes through a different scene, causing happy accidents as well as unfortunate ones. No one is seriously hurt, and it comes to rest eventually, embedded in the heavy mass of a wedding cake.

The holes in Newell's book get stranger the more you think about them. They operate on at least two levels which it's difficult to articulate. They're ON the page but also IN the page. They're symbolic marks in that they're part of the illustrations - they depict holes, but they're also real holes. Not real bullet holes, but real nonetheless. You can see right through them, and feel them with your finger, as many generations of readers seems to have done in the copy I own. The joke is that it carves an improbable path through the book, wreaking havoc but also corresponding with other kinds of holes, like the open mouth in this portrait. It's funny because it's impossible, and that impossibility draws attention to the mismatch between the material object of the book and its imaginative space. The bullet travels across half the town, apparently, but also only through a quarter inch of stacked pages.