FIRE: An Abbreviated Reading List

15 November, 2021

BOOK-BURNING

Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (1953)

Pop­u­lar sci-fi writer Ray Brad­bury may have based his dystopi­an clas­sic on book cen­sor­ship and destruc­tion — at least in part — on the Nazi Reich­stag pyre of 1933 in Berlin, a blaze result­ing from The Reich­stag Fire Decree which “sus­pend­ed most civ­il lib­er­ties in Ger­many, includ­ing habeas cor­pusfree­dom of expres­sionfree­dom of the press, the right of free asso­ci­a­tion and pub­lic assem­bly, and the secre­cy of the post and tele­phone.” None of these rights was rein­stat­ed dur­ing Hitler’s reign, which end­ed in the Spring of 1945. How­ev­er, while book burn­ing may have been a hor­ror of the Inqui­si­tion and the Nazis, it con­tin­ues to be a threat. For instance, in ear­ly Novem­ber 2021, two board mem­bers of a Vir­ginia school that called for library removal of “sex­u­al­ly explic­it” titles, said they want­ed to see such books burned. Com­ment­ed board mem­ber Rabih Abuis­mail: “I think we should throw those books in a fire.” Some­how one doubts Abuis­mail has read Fahren­heit 451.


The Library Book
, Susan Orlean (2018)

Ange­lenos were marked by the 1986 fire that destroyed much of the beloved Los Ange­les Cen­tral Pub­lic Library. But Susan Orlean was a new LA arrival and had­n’t known about the calami­tous fire that shut down the city’s largest library for sev­en years, nor did she then know that this was the largest library fire in US his­to­ry. When dur­ing a library tour she first learned of it, she imme­di­ate­ly thought to her­self, “I have to write this book.” In her non-fic­tion account, she describes the fire as “feed­ing itself book after book, a mon­ster snack­ing on crisps.” The fire reached 2,000 degrees and burned for more than sev­en hours. Once extin­guished, it had con­sumed four hun­dred thou­sand books and dam­aged sev­en hun­dred thou­sand more. Inves­ti­ga­tors descend­ed on the scene, but more than thir­ty years lat­er, the mys­tery remained: Did some­one pur­pose­ful­ly set fire to the library—and if so, who? Orlean explores the pos­si­bil­i­ties, includ­ing the sto­ry of the prime arson sus­pect, Har­ry Peak. The Library Book reads like an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

WILDFIRES

The Tortilla Curtain, T.C. Boyle (1995)

Wild­fires have been a threat and an inevitable aspect of life in Cal­i­for­nia for years, a cli­mate dis­as­ter cap­tured in tech­ni­col­or by T.C. Boyle in his 1995 nov­el The Tor­tilla Cur­tain, to ter­ri­fy­ing effect. The threat of the wild­fire in this nar­ra­tive weaves through the lives of Cal­i­for­ni­ans rich and poor, white and migrant, augur­ing the even greater fires and result­ing dam­age that have increas­ing­ly plagued the state as the plan­et heats up. Com­ment­ing in an inter­view on The Tor­tilla Cur­tain’s con­tin­ued pop­u­lar­i­ty, over 20 years after pub­li­ca­tion, Boyle asks rhetor­i­cal­ly, “Why has the book endured? Because of the hard soci­o­log­i­cal and envi­ron­men­tal issues it takes on — and which remain unre­solved. We are now see­ing the effects of glob­al warm­ing, over­pop­u­la­tion, and the fight for resources glob­al­ly. That’s not going to go away until our species is dec­i­mat­ed by war, dis­ease, and famine. We are all one and we are all equal­ly sub­ject to the laws of nature and we are in deep trouble.” 

FIRE-BOMBING

Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut (1969)

As a Wer­ma­cht pris­on­er of war dur­ing WWII, young Pri­vate Kurt Von­negut sur­vived the dev­as­tat­ing Allied fire-bomb­ing of Dres­den by hid­ing away in a meat lock­er. Von­negut and his fel­low PoWs were impris­oned in an under­ground slaugh­ter­house known by Ger­man sol­diers as “Schlachthof Fünf.” When the bombers final­ly relent­ed and flew off, Von­negut and oth­er Allied PoWs were forced to help clean up. In a let­ter Von­negut sent to his fam­i­ly from Ger­many after being freed from the work camp, he sug­gest­ed that the fire-bomb­ing had killed 250,000 peo­ple in 24 hours,  “and destroyed all of Dres­den — pos­si­bly the world’s most beau­ti­ful city.”

SELF-IMMOLATION

By Fire, Writings on the Arab Spring (2016)

Although billed in Eng­lish as one of the first pieces of fic­tion result­ing from the Arab Spring, the sub­ti­tle “Writ­ings on the Arab Spring” is mis­lead­ing. Tahar Ben Jelloun’s By Fire tells in imag­i­na­tive prose the trag­ic true-life sto­ry Mohamed Bouaz­iz­i’s self-immo­la­tion in Tunisia, a hor­ri­ble death that has been cred­it­ed with set­ting off the Tunisian thawra. His novel­la shows us Bouazizi’s frus­tra­tion as a hum­ble street ven­dor who is fre­quent­ly harassed by the police. As Goodreads notes, “Ben Jelloun’s delib­er­ate ambi­gu­i­ty about the loca­tion of the sto­ry, set in an unnamed Islam­ic coun­try, allows the read­er to imag­ine the expe­ri­ences and frus­tra­tions of oth­er young men who have endured phys­i­cal vio­lence and per­se­cu­tion in places beyond Tunisia. The tale begins and ends in fire, and the imagery of burn­ing frames the polit­i­cal accounts in The Spark, Ben Jelloun’s non­fic­tion writ­ings on the Tunisian events that pro­vide insight into the despot­ic regimes that drove Bouaz­izi to such despair. Rita S. Nezami’s ele­gant trans­la­tions and crit­i­cal intro­duc­tion pro­vide the read­er with mul­ti­ple strate­gies for approach­ing these potent texts.”

Things We Lost in the Fire, Mariana Enriquez (2016)

In this collection’s title sto­ry, a group of Argen­tine women light them­selves on fire to protest a viral form of domes­tic vio­lence. Reviewed in The Keny­on Review, one learns that writer Mar­i­ana “Enriquez spent her child­hood in Argenti­na dur­ing the years of the infa­mous Dirty War, which end­ed when she was ten. Tens of thou­sands were tor­tured, killed, or ‘dis­ap­peared’ under cir­cum­stances lat­er nul­li­fied with a blan­ket amnesty. Clear­ly these acts, and the con­comi­tant eco­nom­ic insta­bil­i­ty and cor­rup­tion, pro­vide the earth for Enriquez’s tales. She also comes from a tra­di­tion of Argen­tin­ian fab­u­lists, begin­ning with the revered Jorge Luis Borges. Borges and his friends—the writ­ers Adol­fo Bioy Casares and Silv­ina Ocampo—were so fond of hor­ror that they co-edit­ed sev­er­al edi­tions of an anthol­o­gy of macabre sto­ries. The blend of hor­ror, fan­ta­sy, crime, and cru­el­ty has a par­tic­u­lar Argen­tine pedi­gree. This is not fan­ta­sy divorced from real­i­ty, but a keen­er per­cep­tion of the ills that we wade through.”

 

Send us your rec­om­mend­ed FIRE titles, to info@themarkaz.org, and we’ll share them with TMR readers.