I recently read an article about someone named Alex who has been dubbed “Book Murderer.” Truth is, of course, this man is not a book murderer, per se, but rather merely a book mutilator. Book murderers burn books, while book mutilators are those who do what Alex does: he cuts the big books in half to make the more portable, easier to take on the road.
Alex stands in a long and distinguished line of book mutilators. Though we don’t know their names, in the middle ages there were probably thousands of such people holed up in monasteries, many of them head librarians. All of them were religious and thought that by mutilating a book, for example shaving away the words written on its parchment with a razor—thus is the English word “eraser” etymologically related to “razor”—they could repurpose the vellum. It is not quite the same thing as merely cutting a book in half to make it more portable, but it is nonetheless mutilation for a practical reason.
Now, you may be thinking that, though at least as harmful to trees as the making of any paper book is, this process of book halving may not be that bad, provided the parts of the book are both kept safely together on the shelf. And perhaps you’d be right. It is rather much like the magic trick that in 1809 a certain magician named Torrini is said to have performed for Pope Pius VII when he reportedly sawed a woman in half. Though we have no firm record of that event save a mention of it by Jean Robert-Houdin, who describes it in his memoirs, we do know that P. T. Selbit offered such a performance in London over a century later. In each case the women’s two halves were reassembled, and she became one again, even though she purportedly had been sawed in half. That same year (1921), another magician named Horace Goldin did the same trick in America, improving it somewhat. Of course, the women weren’t really sawed in half, but that’s off the topic: the point is that they were kept together, as the two parts of Alex’s books no doubt are meant to be.
Goldin himself, whose surname before emigrating was Goldstein, enjoyed a remarkably interesting life. He would seem to have garnered his penchant for magic from a gypsy performer in his hometown of Vilnius. His family migrated to Tennessee when he was 16. By the turn of the century, Goldin found himself to be a rising Vaudevillian performer and, though he had many setbacks, within twenty years he would or so become one of the most famous magicians in the world, and he was known especially for his trick of cutting a woman in half.
The town from which he hailed, Vilnius, was then part of Russia. It is now the capital of Lithuania and is said to be one of the most beautiful towns in Europe, though it is not visited as often as other beautiful cities. The reason, of course, is because Lithuania was once a part of the Soviet bloc countries that are only now starting to be visited by tourists more regularly. To speed up the tourism trade, Vilnius (pronounced in Lithuanian as if rhyming with illness) has launched one of the most provocative advertising campaigns of all time, one based on a woman’s orgasm. (They recently seem to have extended it, probably in the name of inclusiveness, to include that of men, as well.) Their basic advertising slogan is this: “Vilnius: The G-spot of Europe. Nobody knows where it is, but when you find it, it’s amazing.” Time will tell if there will be an uptick in visits, but admittedly this advertising campaign is catchier than, “Visit Vilnius, the City that Rhymes with Illness,” or the more cumbersome, “Come to Vilnius, the Birthplace of Horace Goldin, One of the First Magicians to Saw a Woman in Half.”
What’s the point? If you’re going to split anything in half—a person or a book or anything else that belongs together—remember to put them back. Oh, and this, too: if you magically mutilate something or someone publicly, be aware that you are drawing a lot of attention to yourself. And in that case if your native city is associated with orgasm, chances are that eventually everyone will find out.