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A Killer Story

Updated: Aug 7, 2022

Though it may sound like the plot of a murder mystery, this poison wasn’t put there for nefarious reasons. It was put there because it was pretty.”

The impact books have on our lives is not limited to the words written between the covers. Some books inspire new thoughts and send us to unexpected places. Follow me Down the Rabbit Hole in this recurring segment.

When writing, I don’t typically know where an article is going to end up. Sure, I have some inkling of the subject matter coupled with the sensation that the ideas floating around in my head are interrelated. The coming together of those ideas and how they fit emerges as I type, a surprise destination that reveals itself when I’m done.

But today.

Today the only things swirling around in my mind are the laundry list of items on my to-do list. Including the laundry. My brain has reached its capacity. I’ve surpassed writer’s block and entered an everything block. I find myself paralyzed in conversation as I search for the correct words to express myself.

Not exactly fertile ground for creative expression. And yet, the blog must go on.

What to do?

Our conversation in episode 1 of The Midnight Library had me wondering if in some parallel universe my counterpart was flush with time and writing a literary masterpiece. Perhaps I could somehow tap into that, reaching across space-time to bang out this blog post.

Perhaps this isn’t the time to rely on cross-dimensional communication. I’m still waiting.

Then fate stepped in.

While driving to work, a story came on the CBC about the Poison Book Project. It seemed serendipitous, or at least suspiciously appropriate considering The Midnight Library is about a library full of green books.

What luck!

So, this week on Down the Rabbit Hole, I will accept this stroke of luck and simply fill you in on this interesting project, information that perhaps will save a bibliophile from visiting their own midnight library.

Image by Chris Lawton on Upsplash

The Poison Book Project is quite literally what it claims to be—no metaphors here. After following up on a curious hunch, Dr. Melissa Tedone of Winterthur Library in Delaware discovered that the 19th century book she was repairing contained poison. Not just any poison, but arsenic. Though it may sound like the plot of a murder mystery, this poison wasn’t put there for nefarious reasons. It was put there because it was pretty.

In and around 1850, many books were made beautiful using Emerald Green, a pigment containing copper acetoarsenite. Because it is a pigment, it’s friable. That means it comes off, exposing unsuspecting book worms to potentially dangerous levels of arsenic. The rub is that without fancy equipment, it’s not immediately apparent which books are harmless and which ones are out to get you!


I wonder if Matt Haig knew about these potentially toxicity volumes when he furnished his fictional library with green books. Perhaps there’s a metaphor in here after all. And like Haig’s imagined librarian guiding his heroine’s journey, we all have the team of The Poison Book Project. They’ve developed guidelines and even an Emerald Green colour swatch bookmark that you can request on their website here.

I’ve ordered a bookmark myself, and look forward to comparing it to my family’s old books. Then I can rest easy.

Just kidding. It’s not that simple.

All sorts of toxic metals were used during the Victorian-era. Looking at bookcloth alone, the project has identified arsenic, barium, chromium, copper, iron, and mercury. To date, about 50% of 19th-century cloth-case bindings contain lead. Before you panic, they’ve also put together guidelines for handling 19th-century books so you can con on enjoying them without any unwanted side-effects.

Long story short: don’t touch your face or eat while handling them, and wear gloves. Nitrile gloves or something of the like are preferred, though it’s nice to think that fashion gloves may have provided some protection all those years ago.

Find out more on the Poison Book Project website or checkout the Chrome Yellow Bookcloth website dedicated to beautiful yet toxic yellow books.

Check out more from Down the Rabbit Hole by going to

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