January 22, 2015
Bulletproof ideas: a short history of books as armor
by Liam O’Brien
While watching the movie Blackhat the other evening, my mind began to wander, and not just because the screenplay is terrible. There’s a scene late in the movie where Chris Hemsworth’s character, preparing for a final bloody showdown with the antagonist, wraps his bare, risibly good-looking torso with magazines and duct tape as a form of bootleg body armor.
Blackhat was not a good movie, but I’m a huge sucker for jury-rigging, i.e. MacGyvering. Watching characters make a tool or a weapon or armor out of random stuff is awesome. It got me through seven seasons and a movie of Burn Notice.
But this wasn’t the first time I saw a fictional character strapping bound pages to himself to protect against punctures, so I started to wonder: how long has the printed word been used to protect against attacks? And how? And why? Let’s find out!
1. THE PHYSICS
One of the great things about researching body armor is that we live in America, where everyone owns two guns, presumably so they can jump through the air while shooting both. This means that we get to use Gun Internet for research. Innumerable groups, message boards, subreddits, even weirdly comprehensive Yahoo Answers, all devoted to debating whether books can stop bullets.
The folks over at Electric Literature made a video demonstrating this, using a few of 2011’s thickest titles. There’s a website called, beautifully, The Box O’ Truth, run by a gun enthusiast intent on proving exactly what can and can’t stop bullets, and he tries different books for stopping power, including a Bible (more on Bibles later). The folks at Mythbusters, who apparently also watch Burn Notice, successfully demonstrated that phone books are no match for a .50 cal rifle. to nobody’s surprise.
The scientific reason why books, magazines, or any thick enough sheaf of pages is resistant to certain calibers of bullet is the same reason why Kevlar vests work: tensile strength. Kevlar’s densely woven lattice of fibers is hugely resistant to stretching force, so when a bullet hits it, the kinetic energy of the bullet gets transferred to the fibers and radiates outward, transferring only minimal force to the vest’s wearer. Paper fibers also have great tensile strength (just try stretching a piece of paper), though not as much as Kevlar, thus the need for layering.
However, that’s guns. Kevlar can’t stop a knife, because the point of the blade concentrates force on only one or two threads. To stop a knife you need hard armor, like ceramic or metal plate. Or do you?
2. THE HISTORY
The linothorax was an ancient form of body armor worn by the ancient Greeks and Macedonians, including Alexander the Great. Unfortunately no surviving examples exist, because it was made of cloth (it literally means “linen torso”). Nobody knows exactly how it was made, but historians hypothesiz that 12 or more quilted layers of cloth, possibly layered with animal glue, allowed the wearer protection against broad-headed arrows and slashing weapons.
Linen, of course, is used to make high-end paper (including US currency), but there are persistent reports and urban myths of books, often pocket Bibles, stopping a bullet (or blade) on the battlefield. These pop up throughout history but most often in the Civil War. This may be a demonstration of the law of averages; so many bullets were fired during the Civil War that some hit each other, so it’s not hard to imagine nearby Bibles catching a few bullets. The Box O’ Truth fellow is somewhat skeptical of claims that those Bibles would offer much protection, though:
One thing for sure, unless the troops were carrying an original copy of the Gutenberg Bible strapped to their chests, only a miracle of God would have prevented a rifle bullet at full speed from penetrating.
This is the poster for the new National Treasure movie, and we all know it. Mythbusters also helpfully proved that books can stop or at least deflect a stab from a Civil War-era sword, though the idea that intentionally keeping a Bible or a handful of coins by your vital organs would deter death seems like it was more the product of magical thinking than anything practical.
(EDIT: I was just reminded about the classic moment of badassery from Teddy Roosevelt, in which not only did his 50-some page speech stop an assassin’s bullet, but he delivered said speech WITH THE BULLET LODGED IN HIS CHEST.)
Yet whether it’s just because it’s a book most people own, or one people invest special significance in, bulletproof Bibles continue to appear, to military and civilians alike. In 2008, a stray bullet that hit a young girl in Indianapolis reportedly was halted by a Bible, stopping it from also hitting her sister.
And last year, there was the widely reported story of Ohio bus driver Rickey Wagoner, who was attacked by three teenagers and shot twice in the chest. He survived because a devotional book he kept in his shirt pocket miraculously stopped the bullets. Just kidding! He faked the whole thing in an attempt to get a payout from the city, and he’s since been fired, and probably bought a new devotional book.
However, though book armor may not be as effective or widespread in real life, it is EVERYWHERE in pop culture.
3. THE FICTION
Look no further than TV Tropes, which includes a solid rundown of fictional improvised armor. Remember Brad Pitt in World War Z, strapping magazines to himself to protect from zombie bites? (He probably could have used actual copies of the movie’s source book because nobody who worked on that movie seems to have read their copy.) Ned Flanders, saved by a Bible from a sniper’s bullet at 17:27?
My favorite example is The Wire’s immortal Omar Little solemnly getting wrapped in shank-proof atlases during his prison stint. Fun fact: the man who helps Omar is actually played by the late Donnie Andrews, the inspiration for the character of Omar. TV Tropes also has a list of Pocket Miracles, like those Civil War Bibles; events so absurd, you’d only believe them onscreen or on the page.
4. SO NOW WHAT?
Late last year an FSU student’s life was likely saved by a backpack full of books that stopped a stray bullet. The horrifying possibility of gun violence in school, never too remote a fear of parents in today’s America, has led to a call for bulletproof backpacks and books. We’re now even at the point where science’s favorite miracle substance, carbon nanotubes, could let us make actual bulletproof paper.
It would be tempting, but terribly glib, to position this all as one giant metaphor; the faceless spectre of gun violence running up against the healing and impenetrable barrier of education and enlightenment. Considering the current discussions/debates over free speech and violent retaliation, this is not the time to do that.
But I think that the ownership of a physical book is an act of hope. That something in those pages can and will amuse, aid, or spur positive change. We know that books can save our lives in countless possible ways. This is one more.
Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.