Warmth in Winter

Fires are welcome in our northern winter, up here in the Canadas, and dry softwood logs are the fuel of first resort. Books, by comparison, need a lot of page-turning attention to keep them alight, at least when roasted individually. This is why I recommend the books-plus-logs approach to an open fire. I might mention chestnuts, but this is to consider the matter in too superficial a way.

A lady I know in Ottawa – last train stop before Europe – sent round a holiday-season email that filled me with good cheer. It consisted of pictures from her familys customary New Years Eve book burning.

She is an excellent photographer, able to capture with digital technology that warm Kodachrome glow I associate with Christmas cards past. Through the flames I could make out three distinct titles: Why Christianity Must Change or Die, by John Shelby Spong; Religion and Alienation, by Gregory Baum; and A History of God, by Karen Armstrong.

Gentle reader may suspect me of boasting when I mention that I’ve been a book-burner myself (perhaps before this young mother was born). I once specially adapted an old wood stove, adjusting the grille for fine ash, and dampers on stove, flue, and flue pipes till I had optimized for this purpose.

In those days, before recycling provided a guilt-edged alternative for old phone books, catalogues, newspapers and magazines, one could get nearly through the winter on paper alone.

But that was utilitarian. One longs for the joy in warmth to be redoubled by the pleasure of eliminating pernicious literature. Putting it in the recycling bin gives nothing of that pleasure. Some poor tramp might pick a book out, just because it is free. I know people who aren’t even tramps who do this.

And then, not only are they exposed to wicked heresy and error. They may pass the book along to the Sally Anne, or leave it in a laundry room, to do untold further damage.

Stacking such books away in a storage locker is a cop out, an evasion of responsibility. What if you should die, and they all fall into the hands of some susceptible heir? No, it is morally indefensible to discard evil books in a slovenly way.

Better, however, to eliminate gradually and discreetly. A one-time, very public, giant book burning, in for instance the contemporary Islamist manner, is the height of foolishness. We are only drawing attention to the title, and spreading curiosity about it. People may want to know more about the book selected for destruction. They may even be persuaded by our efforts to imagine that the book is entertaining in some way.

The publishers of lascivious works often actually seek this sort of publicity, to encourage the weak of mind and formation. They will quickly reprint, and harvest a profit from the affair. If the publisher isnt pirating, the author of the filthy thing may also be enriched.

We score enough own-goals, over here in Christendom, not to be copying every fanatical excess from the Dar al-Islam. On the other hand, in the medieval spirit, we should pay attention to all their techniques of protest. Who knows what better methods they may have come up with, for making a point? Study them carefully to see what gets results.

Before even considering their content, I would mention that most books published today are significantly more flammable than those of previous generations. Paperbacks on pulp go up a treat. The average American hardcover today, with its felty case, near blotting-paper stock, and glue binding, is very well adapted to the firebox. Few books are properly stitched, and that glue is usually quite crassly over-applied. It thus provides an extra petrochemical jet for the kindling.

I have burnt quite a few books in my time, only because they were so badly made as to become a focus of irritation; then bought the same book over again in a better edition.

My supply of such burners is long exhausted, however, for through the last decade or two I have absolutely refused to buy any book not properly stitch-bound, and printed on decently acid-free paper. Any other I read must come from a library. And Id think it bad form to burn a book that didnt actually belong to me. Besides, the library might make me pay for it.

Content must of course take precedence over style in selecting for ones winter book pile. Still, the fact that more than nine books in ten unconscionably written, are also unconscionably manufactured, is a serendipity. There is hardly a work of popular fiction that wouldnt serve better heating your home, and I cannot scan a bestseller list without spotting fresh candidates for incineration.

But again, buying a book new for the purpose of burning it is perverse. And anyway, the real pleasure comes only after the pain of reading some part of an unworthy volume.

Even today, in reckless moments, I may acquire a book on a subject of lively current interest which, on its surface, promises to edify; alternatively some new poet or thinker I had heard spoken well of. As a man of liberal impulse, should I begin to gag, I set the book aside for later re-perusal. I should never wish to condemn a book for having caught me on the wrong day. Or one that, of no use to me, might be of value to another: that’s what secondhand booksellers are for.

If the book under suspicion has not improved on my return to it, however  and I find it still playing to the gallery of the Seven Deadly Sins – I cannot but come to the moment of “aha.” For it would be downright wanton to let a wicked book pass. It would be making oneself an accomplice in its transmission.

Which takes us to e-books. I am entirely defeated by e-books, and invite suggestions from my readers.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.