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How to Burn a Book

Susan Orlean | Longreads | October 25, 2018 | 1,525 words
Posted inBooks, First Chapters, Nonfiction, Story

How to Burn a Book

In an excerpt from ‘The Library Book’ — inspired by a historic California library fire — Susan Orlean challenges her respect for the printed word with a match and a copy of ‘Fahrenheit 451.’
Maciej Toporowicz / Getty

Susan Orlean | The Library Book | October 2018 | 6 minutes (1,525 words)

Burning Books (2006)

By Bosmajian, Haig A. 098.1 B743

Burning Rubber (2015)

By Harlem, Lily E-book

Burning Chrome (1987)

By Gibson, William SF Ed.a

Burning Love: Calendar Men Series, Book 8 (2014)

By Carr, Cassandra E-book

I decided to burn a book, because I wanted to see and feel what Harry would have seen and felt that day if he had been at the library, if he had started the fire. Burning a book was incredibly hard for me to do. Actually, doing it was a breeze, but preparing to do it was challenging. The problem was that I have never been able to do harm to a book. Even books I don’t want, or books that are so worn out and busted that they can’t be read any longer, cling to me like thistles. I pile them up with the intention of throwing them away, and then, every time, when the time comes, I can’t. I am happy if I can give them away or donate them. But I can’t throw a book in the trash, no matter how hard I try. At the last minute, something glues my hands to my sides, and a sensation close to revulsion rises up in me. Many times, I have stood over a trash can, holding a book with a torn cover and a broken binding, and I have hovered there, dangling the book, and finally, I have let the trash can lid snap shut and I have walked away with the goddamn book—a battered, dog-eared, wounded soldier that has been spared to live another day. The only thing that comes close to this feeling is what I experience when I try to throw out a plant, even if it is the baldest, most aphid-ridden, crooked-stemmed plant in the world. The sensation of dropping a living thing into the trash is what makes me queasy. To have that same feeling about a book might seem strange, but this is why I have come to believe that books have souls—why else would I be so reluctant to throw one away? It doesn’t matter that I know I’m throwing away a bound, printed block of paper that is easily reproduced. It doesn’t feel like that. A book feels like a thing alive in this moment, and also alive on a continuum, from the moment the thoughts about it first percolated in the writer’s mind to the moment it sprang off the printing press—a lifeline that continues as someone sits with it and marvels over it, and it continues on, time after time after time. Once words and thoughts are poured into them, books are no longer just paper and ink and glue: They take on a kind of human vitality. The poet Milton called this quality in books “the potency of life.” I wasn’t sure I had it in me to be a killer.

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