Rasma Says

Musings, deliberations, flashes of unaccounted for brilliance…

Burning Books, Again

Before this there had been only one burned book. I swear. It happened in 1992 and it scored a small scar on my personal integrity the way my one act of willful parental disobedience left a small scar above my eyebrow when I dove off the brown sofa into the marble coffee table some thirty years earlier. I became a good girl after that.

Burning the book was not disobedience. It came from desperation, as recorded in this apologia written for the sake of my daughter who witnessed, in terror, the event.


Without shame I throw them into the fire.
New Yorkers, APR journals, Esquire,
after each is taken from the knee-high pile in my closet
and read. Still more arrive each week

and the pile increases: magazines, journals,
catalogs of new books, Deadalus remainders,
free offers from QPB, BOM, humble Spring Church selections.
They fill my bookcases and I buy more,

more books, more cases, the library
spilling into all the house. My daughter’s collection
forcing her toys into drawers under the bed.
Books are recycled friend to friend,

mother to daughter, new store to used,
read and reread until ultimately they perish.
Like the small paperback I placed
on the grate last night. Snug and trim as a log,

it took flame,sucked smoke through curling pages.
My daughter stopped short and wailed–
But I haven’t read that book yet!
No matter that it has no pictures,

no matter that she is five and this
a fitting end for a 1970 marriage manual
called Strike The Original Match.
I take her weeping into my arms,

the moment palpable– how she believed
she would read every book ever written.
Small love, there are so many.
Read, and more will be written.

Consume, and more will be brought forth–
in you, and by ones like you
who love the written word
and would reach for it through fire.
(Prairie Schooner, 1998)

I have since changed my mind. To burn or not burn a book is not a question of integrity. It is not an affront to intellectual freedom. It is, in fact, an act of intellectual freedom. That’s what I’m here to defend: the burning of books as an act of intellectual freedom.

First let’s get this straight: I am a book lover. Anyone who has visited my house will attest to the fact that my rooms are full of books. I love the object book: the feel and smell of hardcovers, softcovers, old cloth and leather, the crackling binding glue, the myriad textures of paper, the artistic array of layout and font. And then there’s the reading of them, the intake of breath at the well-turned phrase, the mind-boggling metaphysical transformation of experience into block print that sometimes leaves me stunned and blinking at an author’s craft. There is also the time-warp that intrigues me, the disproportionality between the eons it takes a writer to compose the book in relation to the mere minutes it takes the reader to read it. It baffles me, and is part of the magic. Books, books, books. I buy books the way some women buy shoes, or purses, or lipsticks. Something one can’t have too many of. (I also have a mania for buying chairs, but that’s another story, only mentioned here as it occurs to me there may be a book-chair relationship there I ought to investigate sometime. Not now.)

I’ve bought more books than usual the past few years. Particularly creative non-fiction, memoir, lyrical essays, prose of that ilk… as well as books on crafting the same. It’s all part of my MFA study. Research. Voluntary research. I haven’t bought a single book because I was told to. I buy books I expect to love and find inspiration in. When those disappoint, the fall is hard. The first author who underwhelmed was the much acclaimed Vivian McCormack. I’m still studying her, as my advisor likened my writing style to hers and I’m hell bent on finding out if that’s an insult or not. Next was Fleur​ Jaeggy. Enough said. The latest, and the one most likely to make my “don’t like anything she writes” list, was Joanna Walsh. I had read an excerpt from Hotel and loved it, which prompted me to want to read everything she has published. So far I have read Vertigo and Worlds From the Word’s End, as well as Hotel, and all three have left me stunningly underwhelmed. I am still reeling.

This is not a book review, and I am not going to defend my lack of enthusiasm for Walsh’s writing. I’m only here to defend the fact that I’m going to burn her books.

Yes. Burn ’em.

As soon as I say that I hear how angry it sounds, like an act of aggression; at best some kind of defiance and at worst some kind of resentment or even envy. After all, who am I to judge the literary quality of Joanna Walsh who, according to Deborah Levy, author of Black Vodka (haven’t read it):

… is fast becoming one of our most important writers.

Don’t misunderstand. Burning Walsh’s books is not a way of lashing out. It’s not even a statement of her books’ worth, like a bad book review. Burning her books is simply​ a letting go, a release of energy, an unclasping of a fist to drop these books from my life and banish them from my house. As long as they kick around my already overflowing bookshelves they tap energy. Whenever I see one lying around it zaps me, like a ​little evil laser gun, with negative energy. So now I have gathered them in my study. A little pile. The beginnings of a pyre. I will be rid of them.

A recent interview with Ian McEwan made me feel not so alone in my scorn for literature whose post-reading flavor is that of eating a plateful of flaked cardboard. The interview was in Norwegian (Klassekampen, ), so I’ll paraphrase him:

I’m bored to death reading contemporary novels about nameless people sitting in nameless hotels in nameless cities waiting for a phone call from other nameless people.

Hmm… Hotel by Walsh lacks even that level of suspense.

But enough said. I’m not going to review it. I’m not. I’m simply saying that life’s too short, and bookshelves are too narrow, to store poorly written drivel. No matter how beautifully inbound it is.

And there I pause.

Walsh’s books are lovely objects. There’s an aesthetic to them that makes me unable to furl them into the woodbox. For now they will remain in position, an unlit pyre. I’ll see when I’m done burning my current book – a particularly ugly-cover-version of The Confederacy of Dunces. Maybe the weather will turn warm and I’ll have no need of kindling and I’ll end up donating them to charity.

Someone might find value in them, at least in the covers, which are quite lovely. And they’re full of​ inspiring writing, too–some of the best blurbs you’ll ever read.




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