Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Today's Wednesday Essay is one of my favorite authors. Her novel, The Book of Dead Birds absolutely will blow you away. She's also a gracious and kind person, and starring in a production of Annie Get Your Gun.

by Gayle Brandeis

We share our house with silverfish. It is an uneasy coexistence.

There is certainly room enough for all of us. Silverfish are small (at least most of them are—I’ve seen some that are the size of big toenails. The babies are tiny as eyelashes. Most approximate large grains of rice.) They’re pretty cool looking—silvery and prehistoric, with long antennae, and three wispy filaments that emerge from the end of their scaly bodies. They look like something that should be fossilized on a piece of shale, but they move like drops of mercury.

I would be perfectly at peace with this cohabitation if it weren’t for one thing: silverfish eat paper. Scads of it. And we have scads of paper in our house. They eat it like candy. Writing paper, tissue paper, onion skin paper—they love it all. I’ve heard they love the starch and sizing in the bindings of books, the linen in book covers. I’ve been told they don’t like newsprint, but we’ve found plentiful evidence to the contrary. Whenever a piece of paper falls into a crack behind a desk or dresser, the silverfish turn it into lace—they chew notches along the edges, gnaw feathery holes throughout the page.

The silverfish like the shelf paper in my daughter’s closet and our kitchen drawers. They adore our recycling bin. They find great pleasure in any schoolwork that has drifted to the floor.

I am a paper hound, and have a pile of old manuscripts and not-yet-filed flyers and articles and mail and other bits of print in the corner of my office. It is a grand buffet for the silverfish. They nibble the sides of pages, give the paper scalloped edges. I bought plastic bins to protect my work, but the silverfish have found their way inside. They haven’t destroyed anything too important yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time.

This house was theirs before it was ours (at least it was the toenail-sized ones’; silverfish can live for up to eight years.) My vegetarian, not-wanting-to-kill-anything, pesticide-avoiding self is averse to bringing in the exterminators. I’ve read that boric acid—which is not so bad for the environment—can work, but somehow I haven’t gotten around to buying any. In a way, I’ve grown fond of the little buggers. I don’t wish them harm, even though they chewed up the single article I kept about my book launch. I’ve heard they like dried beef. Maybe if I scatter some jerky throughout the house, they’ll turn their backs on our papers.

Silverfish can’t help but keep a person humble. They remind me that the words that I’ve committed to paper are transitory, fleeting, destined to be eaten up by time; they remind me to keep my focus on the moment, on the creative process, rather than trying to strive for any sort of permanence. They remind me that despite all our human hubris, it is bugs who will have the final word.

--Gayle Brandeis is the author of Fruitflesh: Seeds of Inspiration for Women Who Write (HarperSanFrancisco), Dictionary Poems (Pudding House Publications), and The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel(HarperCollins), which won Barbara Kingsolver's Bellwether Prize for Fiction in Support of a Literature of Social Change. Her second novel, Self Storage, will be published by Ballantine in 2007. Gayle is writer in residence for the Mission Inn Foundation's Family Voices Project, and was named a "Writer Who Makes a Difference" by The Writer Magazine. She lives in Riverside, CA with her husband and two children. You can visit her online at her website,, her blog,, or her MySpace page,


At 9:11 AM, Blogger Susan Henderson said...

This is just beautiful. That last paragraph caught me completely off-guard.

At 8:08 PM, Blogger Patry Francis said...

I never heard of silverfish before,but you've now convinced me that every writer should share their life with them. Maybe it would remind us of the impermanence of our creations and keep us humble.

This was wonderful.

Thank you, Gayle and Jordan!

At 7:37 AM, Blogger Jordan E. Rosenfeld said...

Glad you gals could stop by and read Gayle. Go buy her book!! You won't regret it.


At 6:58 PM, Blogger Stephanie said...

I like silverfish, but what they do to's like a ravenous reader.


Post a Comment

<< Home