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2008-09, 359, Book Reviews, Colin Steele, Libraries, War

Book Reviews: Burning Books&Books: a Memoir.

Burning Books.

Fishburn, Matthew,  (Palgrave Macmillan).256pp. $59.95

Books: a Memoir.

McMurtry, Larry, (Simon & Schuster).259pp.$35


Burning and collecting books are at the opposite ends of the bibliospectrum. Matthew Fishburn, a specialist with Hordern House Books in Sydney, originally began a PhD on fire in literature, but soon found that the subject was so vast it overwhelmed him, “but as I talked to people about my research, I found many assumed that I meant burning books and I became fascinated with the subject. At the time I was working on a catalogue of books about imaginary voyages and utopias and I discovered book burning regularly featured in both.”

The fascinating and learned text of Burning Books reflects the chronology of Fishburn’s original thesis, focussing on the background of the book burnings in Nazi Germany, although his introduction, opening chapter and the postscript provide wider historical contexts. The postscript highlights the publication of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in 1953. Although Bradbury has said that the book-burnings in Fahrenheit 451 were inspired by the 1933 Nazi book-burnings, he affirmed in 2007 that the book itself was not about censorship: “the culprit in Fahrenheit 451 is not the state— it is the people”. Bradbury saw television as a major threat to reading books. Suppressing ideas by burning the books has always appealed to totalitarian regimes throughout history, but was perhaps given most recognition by the Nazi book burnings. Fishburn says: “One of the things that I found in researching this book was that you see a certain suite of famous events being discussed or mentioned constantly. So you see the Nazi burning of the books, you see Rushdie’s book being burnt, being mentioned all the time, but you very rarely see that other submerged history … If there’s a regime of the censor and there’s a police state, people will cleanse their own libraries.”

Fishburn concludes that he has sought to study “this tension between proscription and desire, rather than resolve it” and that “our relationship with books and langauge is never a simple one”. According to Fishburn, many writers have “reserved the idea of burning books as a possible, maybe even a necessary act of redemption”.

Fishburn notes deliberate book burnings have declined, unlike accidental library or bookshop fires, although pulping of books, particularly by libraries and publishers has increased. Fishburn lists the well-known book losses/ burnings as the Library at Alexandria; the Library of Congress by the British; the loss of Louvain Library in 1914; the attacks on Salman Rushdie; the bombardment of the library in Sarajevo in 1992; and the National Library and Archives destruction in Baghdad in 2004. Fishburn has established a website ( http://burningbookspalgrave.blogspot.com/ ) because “there were many images and even more quotes and references that did not make the cut” in his book, providing an essential supplement to Burning Books.

Fishburn notes that novelist Ford Madox Ford used bacon rashers as bookmarks while at the breakfast table, which certainly would not have helped the collectability of those books. Pulitzer Prize winner Larry McMurtry began collecting books when he was a student at Rice University in Houston in the late 1950s, a few years before his novels brought him literary fame.

McMurtry, the author of some 40 books, including The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove and Terms of Endearment, has been a writer and bookseller or, as he terms it, a “book wrangler” since the early 1960s. McMurtry describes Books: A Memoir as a “hasty account of my life with books” and it certainly reveals an overall lack of form. McMurtry preempts criticism of his approach, citing that the antiquarian book trade itself is as “an anecdotal culture”. Books: A Memoir resembles some of the long-gone bookshops McMurtry describes, namely rambling, disorganised yet with bibliophilic jewels still to be found amongst the whole.

McMurtry deliberately avoids (which on one level is a pity) “personality” driven comments, such as “should Warren Howell have bought that last suspect bunch of books? Did Johnny Jenkins gamble unwisely? Was H P Kraus ever friendly?” McMurtry is also frustratingly brief in many of his 109 short chapters, some of which are less than or just over a page in length. “Ought dealers to collect?” deserved more text, and bold statements, such as in chapter 69, “many bookmen … rarely, if ever, read”, are not followed through.

Maybe part of the problem is that McMurtry has already written about his early life and bookselling elsewhere, notably in his 1999 book Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen. In the section of that book, “Book Scouting”, McMurtry recalls his life as a book scout and collector, growing up in Archer City, a remote part of Texas, “a bookless part of a bookless state”. McMurtry later transformed Archer City into a booktown, buying up old buildings in an attempt to make it into a “musty Mecca for bibliomaniacs”. See http://www.bookedupac.com/ . His “Booked Up” shops there now contain 400,000 books in five buildings around the Archer City courthouse square. McMurtry says the only books not stocked are his own, partly because he doesn’t want to be asked to sign them! He did, however, once sign some for me !

McMurtry’s website indicated in late 2007 that he might temporarily close his shops for economic reasons, but happily this has not eventuated. He acknowledges, however, “there are certainly better ways to make money than selling second-hand books”. McMurtry ranges over the many booksellers he has known, from California to Washington, and laments the bookshops which have disappeared largely due to high city rents, the Internet and ageing bookbuyers. McMurtry notes his Archer City customers are all over 45.

Age will not weary in the short term those bookbuyers, but the bookshops’ infinite variety has certainly gone into cyberspace for better or for worse. The destruction of virtual libraries is perhaps a future topic for Mathew Fishburn when “the machine stops”.

Colin Steele



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