Monday, June 23, 2008

Burning Textbooks (2007?)

The habit of burning books to mark some special event has particular resonance for students. It's possible to find stories about rowdy youngsters burning their textbooks in newspaper archives, but even easier to type "burning books" into YouTube and see what happens. Generally, the tone is forced and the grinning sheepish: it's fairly easy to conclude that the videos say more about group psychology than the death of literature.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Smoking books: Ronald Searle

The British cartoonist Ronald Searle, known for his St. Trinians' cartoons and for his work on the Nigel Molesworth books ("A gerund left out. No place for it in one of my sentences."), was a prisoner of war in Burma and Changi during the Second World War. During this time, through illness and malnutrition, he went from 11 to 7 stone. Well-known are his sketches from this period, many executed with a burnt-match on whatever scraps of paper were to hand, and often hidden from the guards by leaving them under the bodies of those who had died of disease.
Like many POWs he was an avid smoker, but cigarette paper was at a premium. He would smoke the blank corners of his drawings, newspapers, and even, after he had read it five times, half of Pickwick Papers (but which half? Searle is mute on this subject).
Another book to be enjoyed twice, as it were, was Rose Macaulay's Minor Pleasures of Life. Many years later he met Macaulay, and "told her I had been able to add a further minor pleasure to her anthology. Sad to say she was not amused, looked me up and down with distaste and turned her back to talk to someone more respectable. Dickens, I feel, would have been more understanding."

Disposable books

In tension with the rather formal idea of burning books, which is often a very dread and serious business, there is the everyday disregard for the book as an object. Examples abound. Napoleon on campaign was rumoured to have thrown novels out the carriage window as he finished them, making, one biographer commented, his expeditions into a sort of impromptu paper-chase. Edward Fitzgerald would cut out sections of books which he disliked and bind up the remainder, while Charles Darwin was even more slipshod, and would routinely cut up books to make them more convenient, holding the battered fragments together with metal clips. A famous neurologist called Hughlings Jackson was known for sending relevant or interesting sections to friends, but also for cutting railway novels in half, so that he could be evenly weighted down, one half in the left pocket, the other in the right. Undoubtedly my favourite, the horror of all book-collectors, is the tale that Shelley would use the flyleaves of books, if nothing else was to hand, to make paper boats.
For many years I have been spreading the rumour that novelist Ford Madox Ford used bacon rashers as bookmarks while at the breakfast table, but I have conveniently forgotten the source of this no-doubt libelous story. It is true, however, that Wordsworth would open his books with a used bread-and-butter knife.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Library of the Burned Books: 10 May 1934

The Library of the Burned Books, a project of German exiles and anti-Nazi writers in Paris in 1934, was opened in time for the first anniversary of the first bookfires, on 10 May 1934. This snapshot was taken during the course of the evening when speeches were given by prominent exiles and supporters. Here, standing on the chair for his speech, is Magnus Hirschfeld, the erstwhile head of a sexual research institute in Berlin (he is considered a sort of precursor to the work of, for instance, Kinsey in the 1950s). His institute was deliberately targeted, and largely destroyed by uniformed students and Nazi functionaries. Fortunately, Hirschfeld was abroad at the time of the attacks, and he never returned to Germany.
The man standing to his immediate right, in three-quarter profile, appears to be Alfred Kantorowicz, the Library's head.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Velimir Khlebnikov

The Russian Futurist poet Khlebinkov was known by his friends to have been pathologically careless with his own manuscripts: Mayakovsky described how he had a habit of filling a pillow case full of papers, and then losing it. Even his great 'Incantation by Laughter' was rumoured to have been salvaged from the floor by his friend David Burliuk.
Moreover, Raymond Cooke has described how for Khlebnikov, the act of burning books or manuscripts evolved into a complex, but usually anti-authoritarian, gesture. In the comic poem ‘Malusha’s Granddaughter’ he calls for a ‘joyous fire’ to be made from the books which are tormenting young people like ‘fierce chains of penance’ - “thus does he characterize Marxist literature” wrote the critic Boris Yakolev in his attack New World (1948). Nor did he just attack Marxist writers like Kautsky and Bebel, but a psychologist, a psychiatrist, a historian, a medical bacteriologist, and so on: the line is ‘vse gorite! / Ogney slovami - govorite!’ (which Cooke translates as: ‘ all burn away! In words of fire - have your say!’
The ritual burning of books turned into something of a particular theme for Khlebnikov. In ‘Conversation Between Two’ (1913) a brief attack on Immanuel Kant turns into a more general call for book burning: “I long for a great bonfire of books. Yellow sparks, rapid fire, translucent ash which disintegrates when touched or even breathed upon, ash on which it is still possible to make out individual lines, words of boasting or arrogance, - all this is transformed into a black, beautiful flower, illuminated by fire from within, grown from the book of people, as the flowers of nature grow from the book of the earth.”
Raymond Cooke, Velimir Khlebnikov: A critical study (Cambridge University Press, 1987)

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Louvain: "They Burned the Books"

One of the benchmarks of book burning in wartime propaganda was Stephen Vincent Bénet's enormously popular radioplay, They Burned the Books. Commissioned by the Council on Books in Wartime, and first performed in 1942, it became a staple of anti-Nazi popular expression, particularly on the tenth anniversary of the first major Nazi bookfires in 1943.
It had a contemporary release as a small booklet, but this image comes from a collected edition of Bénet's work, We Stand United of 1945. Although no caption is given, it is interesting to note that the image is evidently meant to represent the new library at Louvain, rebuilt and opened in 1928, in flames.