Friday, January 29, 2010

What kind of fire are we talking about here?

Let me get this straight. There is a fire, one that's burning books ala Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, and I'm supposed to pick the one book that I would save from said fire? Is that right? Because if it is, I got problems with that scenario.

For starters, what kind of fire are we really talking about here? In Fahrenheit 451, the government has outlawed the reading of books to prevent critical thought and employs fire as the method of choice for dealing with such dangerous material. As much as I love Ray Bradbury and his work (and I do really, really love the man's books; Something Wicked This Way Comes is one of my all time favorites), I don't buy this idea at all. Fahrenheit 451 was written back in the 50s, well before the internet and e-books and Project Gutenberg. Now the internet may not be any great bastion of intellectualism, but its main means of conveying info is via text, which means reading: blogs, zines, and yes, books. And there are lots of books available on the internet, some legally, some not. You can buy e-books from, Barnes & Nobles online, and dozens, maybe even hundreds of small independent e-publishers these days. And then there's Project Gutenberg, which offers public domain books for free download. Plenty of great classics there to read. And let us not forget the URLs of those darling swashbucklers who love to post entire books illegally on the web. Argh, me hearties! If the government can't stop people from pirating books by the thousands on a daily basis, what the hell makes anyone think they could successfully outlaw reading altogether? Nuh-uh, not buying it.

So forget the plot to Fahrenheit 451. The government is not going to stop any of us from reading books. Reality TV might succeed, by turning our brains to such mush that we can't even remember the damn alphabet, but the government isn't about play out Bradbury's classic novel.

So if we're not talking about the government burning all the books, what kind of fire are we talking about here? Maybe an act of God? Would some all powerful deity reach out and zap all the books in a fit of pique? If that's the case, then why am I being asked to save that one book? I can't imagine anyone expecting me to do something like that because if it really is an all powerful deity out to destroy all books, then we all no there's not a damned thing I can do to save just one precious volume. Me versus God? One of two things would happen in that fight. Either God would zap my ass too, or we'd all come to our senses and remember that I don't believe in God and thus the whole argument would blow apart like a house of cards in a late summer hurricane. Ain't atheism great?

So with no holy fires from the Almighty coming to rain down on our local library, we are back again to the original question. What kind of fire are we talking about here? A natural disaster? California wildfires gone completely out of control? No, that would only destroy all the books on the North American continent. We need something worldwide and cataclysmic. How about a comet hitting the Earth! No, too cataclysmic. That wouldn't just wipe out all the books; that'd take out all the people too and then there'd be no point in saving that lone book. Think, think, think... Uuuuuuuuuh... massive tectonic shifts across the world that destroy all of civilization without somehow killing all the people. No, even that wouldn't destroy all the books. I mean, if some people survived, then some buildings would probably also survive, and there'd probably be a few books in some of those, and that leaves us with more than one book and those would have survived without my intervention...

Okay, I'm over-thinking things here. Let's go simple. Let's talk about a fire that could happen, but one I hope never will. A house fire. Let's say I burned dinner and my house is now on fire. First off, the one book I would not save would be the cookbook I was cooking from because the house fire is all the fault of that book. That just leaves several hundred other books to choose from. Of course, books wouldn't be my priority. Depending on the time of day... we said I was burning dinner, right? Okay, it's evening then. Evening is when the kids are home. The Hubster might be home, too. So first priority is to save the kids and the Hubster. Now the Hubster is like a walking encyclopedia. The man has two degrees in aerospace engineering and has pretty much memorized every tech book he's ever read. If I save the Hubster, I do not have to save any computer or science books from the house, because those would already be stored in that immense brain of his. So that narrows down the list by about... let's say a third.

The kids, of course, have memorized all their board books and easy readers because you know, kids like to read the same thing over and over and over and over and over and... what? What was I talking about? Oh yeah, kids' books. The kids (and I, since I'm the one who has to read those books aloud over and over and over and over and...) have pretty much memorized all their books, and can recite most of them by heart, so no need to save those. Sure, they have sentimental value, but so do the kids and if I save the kids I'm sure I'll be hearing those stories told to me at any odd moment all throughout the next few years, like at 2AM when the littlest one can't sleep so she climbs into my bed and starts reciting Sandra Boyton's The Going to Bed Book at the top of her lungs. ("THE SUN HAS SET NOT LONG AGO... NOW EVERYBODY GOES BELOW... TO TAKE A BATH IN ONE BIG TUB... WITH SOAP ALL OVER, SCRUB SCRUB SCRUB!")

So, nonfiction? Check. Kids' books? Check. No need to save either of those categories. That brings down the number of books I have to choose from to about one third of the household library.

Now we reach the tricky part. Now we are talking about MY books. MY precious tomes which I have collected over the last several years. Like Michelle and Lisabet, I have had on occasion to thin my library. Honestly, I can't tell you the number of books I've given away. When I knew child number two was on the way, I was forced to give up my office and convert it into a bedroom for child number one. That required a massive thinning of my books, though to this day there is only one title out of all those I gave away that I still remember -- A Distant Soil by Collen Doran. It was a graphic novel, and a damned good one, and someday I'll probably get another copy of it. But it ain't in the library of my hypothetically burning house right now and so not eligible for this discussion.

What is in the library that would I save? Hmm... My first thought is Delusion's Master by Tanith Lee. This was my first introduction to the world of adult high fantasy, a lush book about the demon prince Azhrarn, Lord of Night, who courted a beautiful mortal maiden, and Azhrarn's un-cousin, Chuz the Lord of Chaos, who brought madness upon them both with his brass rattle and the clacking jawbones of an ass. It's one of the few books I own that I have re-read, and of those one of the few that stood up to the test of time. I loved it even more the second time I read it, and the third time I read it, it inspired me to write Demon By Day. So yeah, that's certainly a contender.

Then there's The Gate to Women's Country by Sherri S. Tepper. Now that's a dangerous book, the first truly feminist book I'd ever read, about a world in which women live inside walled towns and men live outside in military barracks. The women provide all the food, clothing, medicine, etc., while the men provide... protection, from other similar walled towns with armies of men quartered outside. The two sexes never meet except on specific feast days and even then they get together under very controlled conditions. Any man who can't handle the rigors and demands of military life outside the town is whipped and chased through a specific gate that leads back into the women's world, where he must stay for the rest of his life. All of this is shown through the eyes of one girl as she grows up and falls in love with a boy on the outside, then runs away with him to fall victim to a startling fate. Sherri S. Tepper writes beautifully, almost mythically, but this particular book had such a shocking -- and fitting -- ending, it was a couple weeks before I could read anything else. So there's another strong contender. However, now that I think about it, I believe I loaned that book to Janice a few years ago and never got it back... Well damn. On to the next book.

Of course, in case of a house fire I would definitely want to grab my dad's book. Not one of the ones he actually got published, but the one he wrote and never published. My dad is the ultimate humorist. He makes up these wild tales about fictional family members that leave anyone who hears them laughing so hard their sides hurt. There's Uncle Herbivore and Cousin Osty Perosis, and a slew of other guffaw-inducing characters that could only have come from my dad's warped brain. Yes, I'd be sorely tempted to grab the slim volume of stories that he wrote and printed out and gave me, but then I also know he still has them on disk at home, and it's my house on fire here, not his, so I could probably get another copy very easily. Eh, put that one down as a maybe. Dad's not going to care about me saving books anyway, so long as I get me, the Hubster and the grandkids to safety.

Maybe I'd save Bone, by Jeff Smith. I've never read a better graphic novel. Or I should say, novels. There are ten in all, comprising a fantastic tale about Fone Bone and his cousins Smiley Bone and Phony Bone and their adventures with dragons and princesses and little old ladies who race cows (the volume entitles The Great Cow Race is hysterical!). I discovered the Bone books last summer and started buying them one at a time and reading them to my kids, who also promptly fell love with the books. Of course, I'm only allowed to save one book here, and Bone is actually ten. Hmm... There is a collected works volume; it's got the original black and white artwork but it's only one book so I could save that. Oh, except I don't own the collected works volume, and besides, it doesn't have the prequel story, Rose, illustrated by Charles Vess. Okay, not Bone then. Sorry Jeff Smith. I still love your work though!

All right, I've debated and debated and debated and finally made my choice. I know exactly which book I'd save! But all the while I've been thinking about it, my damn house has been burning down around my ears and most of my library is upstairs, while I'm downstairs in the kitchen with the dinner turning to charcoal in the oven. Thus I am forced to choose from the very limited set of books I have within reach right at that moment before I die of smoke inhalation. I grab the nearest book and run outside the house where my tech and science library (in the form of the Hubster) awaits with my children's book library (in the form of my kids). We flee to safety with my one precious book clutched to my chest and after the fire trucks have come and dowsed the flames and left our home one giant soggy mess, and after I know all my precious books including Delusion's Master and The Gate to Women's Country and Bone and my dad's unpublished greatest works are nothing but sodden ashes, then I look down at the one book that I saved.

And smack myself in the head as I realize I grabbed the one book I said I would not save at the beginning of this hypothetical scenario; the fucking cookbook that caused me to burn down the house in the first place. Because that was the only book in the kitchen when we started this nonsense.

Did I mention I don't like this week's topic one bit? Did I mention that?

Eh, forget it. You people figure out what books to save. I'm going to actually read now instead.


  1. Helen,

    Either you're a very fast thinking person, ot that's a damned slow-burning fire you've got there.

    Either way - this week's blog was pure entertainment.



  2. Ashley,

    Hypothetical fires always burn slowly. I think. Haven't really tested that one yet ;)

    Enjoy your weekend!

  3. Hey, Helen,

    You sure managed to write a lot on a topic you didn't like...

    I loved THE GATE TO WOMEN'S COUNTRY also, but haven't read the Tanith Lee. Got to put it on my list.

    Thanks for being such a good sport. Not to mention hilarious. I imagine you'll be happier with this coming week's topic!


  4. Lisabet,

    Oh I bitch and moan about the topics, but that's because I enjoy bitching and moaning ;) Besides, it gives me a unique slant on whatever topic we choose, a necessity when I post at the end of the week!

    Glad you enjoyed the post. Definitely read Tanith Lee. She's been called the Goddess Empress of Fantasy, and the title is well-deserved.


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