But words are things; and a small drop of ink,
Falling, like dew, upon a thought, produces
That which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.
—Lord Byron, “Don Juan”
[Words are] innocent, neutral, precise, standing for this, describing that, meaning the other, so if you look after them you can build bridges across incomprehension and chaos.
—Tom Stoppard, “The Real Thing”
Thursday, 2:30 p.m. The message on the answering machine comes in a rush. I recognize my mother-in-laws voice but can decipher only the final three words: “Burning. Find Bob.” Burning! What’s burning? I must have just missed her call. I was away from the phone for only a moment. I dial Bob, my husband, on his pager. He is working the 3-11 shift at U.S. Steel. I fidget distractedly as I wait for the telephone to ring. When he calls, the first words out of his mouth are, “I already know.”
“Know what?” I ask.
His sister has called. His house on the family farm is on fire. He is heading out there now.
“Should I come out, too?” I ask.
“No. Wait till I see what the situation is.”
Bob’s 4-year-old granddaughter, Caitlin, is spending the day with me. We settle down to wait, sitting cross-legged on the floor, piecing together her Scooby-Doo jigsaw puzzle. Still, lodged in the corner of my mind is the image of the long, steep driveway, the garage and Bob’s house in the small clearing on their tree-covered hillside.
Two hours later Bob calls again. He is standing in the front yard, facing the house, talking on his cell phone. Thirty fire trucks, manned by local volunteers, form a solid line down the driveway, spilling out onto the road.
“The house is a total loss,” he says. “The roof has caved in. The walls are still standing, but everything is burned inside.” His voice betrays neither sadness nor alarm, only a heightened excitement.
Bob built the house with his own hands in the 1970s. Years later he and his wife divorced. His children are grown. He is not an expressive person. He will never put it into words. But I think of how he must feel, watching so much work, so much of his past go up in flames. It was the house his children grew up in.
I ask again, “Should I come out now?”
“No,” he says. “There’s nothing you can do. The firemen still won’t let us inside.”
I think of my books. Bob and I married later in life, already established in our own places. Although we spent time in the house when we were first married, for the most part we live in my apartment now, in town. Bob has been thinking of selling the house. But many of my books, seven or eight bookcases full, are still there.
“The fire seems to have started in the living room,” Bob says. “At one point the firemen thought they had it contained. But then it flared up through the walls into the attic, and it was hopeless.”
I hear voices in the background, but I can’t make out the words.
“They’ve managed to save some of your books,” Bob says. “We’re piling them in the garage. You can come out tomorrow and decide what’s worth keeping.”
I take Caitlin home to her parents, to Bob’s son, Jeff, and his wife. I have told Caitlin that her Daddy may be feeling sad about the house. When I leave them, she is snuggling up to Jeff on the couch, trying to cheer him up.
Friday, 10 a.m. The sight is staggering. I have lived much of my life in books. Now to see so many, charred and sodden, strewn across the floor of the garage, heaped in plastic bags in hectic piles— it is too much for me. I can’t take it in. My brain is too dull. I simply stand before them, looking, my arms at my sides. Where do I start? What can I possibly do? I feel a tightening in my throat. My first impulse is to give up, not even to try. I can’t absorb the violation. I say to Bob, “Just throw them away”
“What?” he says.
“Just throw them away.”
Bob ignores me—I know he thinks I will change my mind— and turns to show me the house. I turn to follow. There it stands, or what’s left of it, its siding smeared black above the living room’s picture window, the roof collapsed into the second floor. With the gabled end walls still standing, the roofline looks empty against the sky I look up at the projecting end walls. The house is an American neo-Colonial and not an English mansion, but the devastation of the roofless walls makes me think of the jagged parapets of Thornfield Hall after the fire that blinded Mr. Rochester in “Jane Eyre.” If I were asked to sum up the look of the house in one word, the word that would come to mind is forlorn.
I follow the flagstone walk to the front door and step inside. My feet crunch through the loose bed of charcoal that covers the floor. The walls of the living room are an alien, inky black. They have the chipped, patterned shine of a coal mine. Though the fire has been out since yesterday evening, the smell of smoke still claws at my throat. Of one bookcase there is no trace at all. The books have simply been incinerated, vaporized. There is nothing left but empty space. It’s as if they had never existed, as if no bookcase had ever stood there. Of another bookcase nothing remains but a bottom shelf of carbonized spines fused side by side in a bed of black. The cloth of the spines has burned away, revealing the charred backs of the books’ signatures, still perfectly aligned. The third bookcase has become a thigh-high bank of charcoal, scattered with loose, singed pages. I can’t bring myself to move closer, to learn what books they are from. The pages have survived better than the solid wood shelves that held them. Only the books have left a trace. No furniture remains.
I follow Bob up the stairs to the second floor, tentatively, wondering if the treads will hold, feeling the crunch of charcoal with each step. The attic floor has collapsed under the weight of the roof, opening the black-walled stairwell to the sky. At the head of the stairs, the bathroom is chaos—all blackened dry wall and attic debris heaped over toilet and sink. The frame of the mirror is an oval smudge fused to the once-blue wall. Incongruously, a ruff of blue curtain hangs untouched across the top of the window.
We make our way to the master bedroom in a sort of shuffle through the ceiling debris that forms a jagged layer over the carpet. Larger pieces of charcoal clunk against our shoes. In the bedroom doorway, a sheet of pink insulation drapes itself where it has fallen over the door. I can see from the doorway that the front wall of the room has burned off, opening it to the reach of yard beyond. The far side of the floor simply ends in thin air. It is an unnerving feeling, facing it. I feel momentarily unsafe, exposed, as if even at this distance, I might fall over the edge. I look around the room, trying to take its measure. It seems so much smaller now against its backdrop of trees and sky. The wall was the path of the fire from living room to attic. Bob thinks there must have been a short circuit in the living room, but in what we’ll never know for sure. I step forward, then back off from what seems like a softness under my foot, which I fear may be a weak spot in the floor.
I ask Bob, “Are we okay up here?”
He assures me that we are.
Bob is an engineer and knows a lot more about such things than I do. I decide to take his word that we are not going to plummet through the floor into the coal-mine-like living room below.
Standing opposite the burned-off wall is an empty bookcase, still intact, and the bed, with sheets and blankets apparently unharmed. It is from the bookcases on the second floor that the firemen were able to rescue some of my books—desperate, I am told, to choose the most important ones but not knowing how to judge. I feel a rush of gratitude to these people who will risk their safety for someone they don’t even know.
The smell on the second floor is of smoke turned putrid by partially burned carpet and the damp of the firefighters’ water—a wet-dog, stagnant sort of smell, but deeper and more malign. I reach into a closet and pull the filthy cleaners’ plastic off a favorite, persimmon-colored blazer—stained now with a series of gray Rorschach blots that run vertically down the jacket front, arms and lapels. It seems unlikely it could ever be cleaned.
Bob calls from the head of the stairs. “You have work to do,” he says.
“Start sorting through those books. Decide which ones you want to keep. There are more in the barn.”
I pull away from the closet, though not without noticing a white, embroidered peasant blouse, tinged now in varied shades of grime.
Back in the garage, I see books lying on every horizontal surface, tool bench, windowsills, old tires and of course the floor. The sight makes me almost frantic, and I take a deep breath to steel myself to the job at hand. I can bear the loss of the house, perhaps selfishly, because it was never really mine. But the books are different—at least for me. Standing before them I don’t know how to process the desecration of so many hard-won words. I don’t know how to process the violation of so many books, that element of the sacred the very word book implies. I was brought up to revere books. I believe that words matter.
A mere glance reveals that these are mostly books that belonged to my family—works of Emerson, Robert Burns, Flaubert, the Brownings, Tolstoy, Voltaire, among others, many of them bound in soft, green suede with gold medallions on the front covers. Scattered near the garage’s open door is my grandfather’s 20-volume set of Sir Walter Scott. I kneel down and pick up one of the volumes, pocket-sized, bound in dark-blue leather with gold stamping. The spine is burnt nearly through. I cradle the book in my hands, gently opening to its sodden pages that clump together as I riffle through. Inside the front cover, my grandmother wrote “Marcus W. Stoner, Xmas 1911.” The set was her Christmas present to him 91 years ago, five years before my mother was born. I run my fingers over the leather of the front cover, still so smooth and soft to the touch.
Near the Scott volumes is a pocket-sized, two-volume set of “The Count of Monte-Cristo,” with my father’s bookplate. It is bound in maroon leather, part of Collins’ New Universal Library, which was, I suppose, a sort of Modern Library of its day. At the time of its purchase, Universal Library books sold at a dollar a volume. I also find schoolbooks of my mother’s: Conrad’s “The Shadow Line”; Whittier s “Snowbound and Other Poems”; Molière’s “Le Malade Imaginaire”; a book of selected English essays—Bacon, Defoe, Addison and Steele, Fielding, Dr. Johnson and more.
And yet it is my own schoolbooks that I gravitate toward, above all my French books, with my carefully inscribed lecture notes in the margins: Chateaubriand’s “Atala” and “Reué”; hardcover editions of Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary,” Balzac’s “Le Père Goriot,” Zola’s “Germinal,” published by Scribner’s in its Modern Student’s Library; a Garnier Frères edition of Baudelaire’s “Les Fleurs du Mal.” All are blackened and smell of damp and fire. I gather them up and put them in the back of my Jeep.
With Bob’s help I pull books from the plastic bags that the firemen used to haul them, and lay them out singly on the garage floor to dry. As I reach in, water runs down the inside of the bags onto the backs of my hands. It is all I can do not to cry out at the horror of this cold, dripping water creeping into, seizing my books. I pull out a volume of George Bernard Shaw. The cloth is pushed upward on its boards like a wet, rumpled sheet. Some books are separated entirely from their bindings. I know I should do more, or I think I should. But I don’t know what. And I am near the limits of my endurance. I select a few more books: a 1900 edition of the “Guide Michelin” “Offert gracieusement aux Chauffeurs”—offered free to drivers—and “Le Mécanicien Moderne” published early in the last century, two oversized volumes with colored cutouts of the anatomy of early steam and internal-combustion vehicles. Both belonged to my previous husband, George Schieffelin, who died in 1988, an automobile collector and bibliophile whose wisdom and humor still enlarge my life. Recognizing shortly after we were married how much I loved his 1909 Stanley Steamer, he simply gave it to me—or rather sold it to me for a dollar. The bright red, 20-horsepower Model R roadster was the quintessence of verve and style, and I fired it up and drove it joyfully for years until donating it recently to a local car and carriage museum. I wasn’t sure I would ever recover when George died. He had been the center of my life for 19 years.
To George’s automobile books I add the red leather copy of “The Book of Common Prayer” that I received at my confirmation and “Color Source Book,” a book of color swatches organized according to origin: Chinese porcelain colors, Persian miniature colors, Japanese woodcut colors, the Adam greens, Giotto’s palette, Turner’s palette, the colors of Matisse, 48 palettes in all. The cleanness, the clarity of the colors remains untouched by the fire. Finally I take two of the Scott volumes, the ones in the best condition, “Waverley” and “St. Ronan’s Well.” But that’s it. That’s all I can do for now. I rub my blackened hands against my Levis. I’ll confront the rest of the books in the garage on another day.
In the barn it is the same story all over again, books dumped hurriedly in tumbled stacks over much of the wide plank floor. I stand for a moment in the barn’s dim light. A tiger cat darts behind the pyramid of hay bales that rises to the roof in one corner. These books too are charred and sodden. Some are already beginning to warp. Spines have burned off or survive only as scabby crusts. Many of the books are classics—Edith Wharton, Camus, Dreiser, Austen, Trollope, Virginia Woolf, Kafka. When I pick up Calvino’s “If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler,” the black of charcoal feels greasy on my hands. I lay each book down individually in what feels like a gesture of respect. There are spaces between the floorboards, and blades of hay broken off from the hay bales provide a sparse cover on which to place the books. It occurs to me that perhaps I should be stacking the books to keep them from warping and swelling. But then how would they ever dry? Two of the barn cats keep watch from the haystack as I work. One, a calico, is tucked to the side between a hay bale and one of the roof trusses. The other, ginger and white, sits on his haunches at the top of the pyramid like some Egyptian god—above it all, in all senses of the word.
When I finish I stand in the doorway and look back at the scene. Gray light penetrates the spaces between the wallboards. Books cover most of the floor, lined up row after row. The scene resembles nothing so much as a morgue, and I just have to back away. It’s been a long day.
Monday, 8 a.m. The insurance adjuster has driven here from his Connecticut headquarters to write up the damage to the house. Bob has told me I must come up with a number, so I have counted the books in similar bookcases in town. The average number per bookcase, times seven bookcases, comes to 1,960 books.
The insurance company reimburses based on the number of books lost—not on provenance, memory, the worlds they open. I understand this. And we have no riders to cover books that are collectible or rare. In this calculation the older the book, the less valuable it is. It does not matter that 91 years ago my grandfather first held the Scott novels in his hands. What matters is Replacement Cost and Actual Cash Value, which the adjuster takes the time to explain to me. But I have trouble thinking of my books in terms of money.
The adjuster asks me to categorize the books according to binding and size. When he sees I have no ready answer, he proposes a breakdown of his own: 1,500 soft- and hardcover books at an average price of $15; 400 large, hardcover books at $25; 60 large, hardcover books at $30. Quick mental arithmetic suggests a rather large sum. But that sum represents replacement cost. The actual cash value, which is what the policy covers, would be a fraction of that.
Standing with the adjuster on the flagstone walk, I notice that one of the loose pages from the living room has drifted outside in the wind. It rests on an area of ivy and decorative stones that borders the walk. Its edges are singed, its corners rounded, and someone has stepped on it, leaving a muddy heel mark that smears into the white space above the text. Again I back off, afraid to know what book it is from. Knowing would make the loss too real.
While I was driving out to the farm this morning, I thought I was more in command than I was the other day, that I could handle the books with more dispassion. But when I return to the barn after talking to the insurance adjuster, there is the same sense of impotence and despair. I walk slowly among the books, picking one up, setting it down, picking up another: a first edition of Edith Wharton’s “Madame de Treymes”;George Eliot’s “Middlemarch”; an anthology of Chinese poetry called “The White Pony”; “An Existentialist Ethics” by Hazel Barnes, which I remember as a sort of Golden Rule dressed up in existentialist-speak. I test the crackle of now-dried pages, gently cradle the burnt, cracked spines. A friend of mine, an archivist and book-wright, has told me that the best thing for water damage is to freeze the books to keep mold from developing. But I wonder if my books aren’t beyond such remedies. I look over the scattered volumes of my Yale Shakespeare, small, compact volumes bound in medium-blue cloth, which I have used so often to place a certain scene or line. The boards of many have warped as they dried. “Macbeth,” “Richard II,” “Henry IV,” Parts I and II. I think of John of Gaunt on his deathbed in “Richard II,” his paean to an England he now sees as compromised: “This royal throne of kings, this scept’rd isle.” I have been moved by the image of the wise and dying Gaunt since first reading the play in high school. The Yale Shakespeare was a gift from my mother. When she gave it to me, she told me, “A complete set of Shakespeare is something everyone should have.” Now the books lie on the hay like wounded birds, their boards like broken wings.
I gather a few more titles to take back to town: the Wharton first edition; my Modern Library set of the complete Greek tragedies; an anthology of haiku translated by Harold G. Henderson. I think of a poem by Matsuo Bashõ that I have always particularly liked and page through the book until I find it. I notice that I put a checkmark by the title, “Clouds.” Seeing it is like seeing a long-lost friend:
Clouds come from time to time—
and bring to men a chance to rest
from looking at the moon.
I have often recalled the poem in bad times, the clouds that let you rest. On the previous page, I see I put a checkmark by another poem, “On the Mountain Pass”:
Here on the mountain pass,
somehow they draw one’s heart so—
violets in the grass.
The final line is almost mundane, and yet, set up as it is, the effect is exquisite.
To the books I have gathered already, I add F. Hopkinson Smith’s “Charcoals of New and Old New York,” No. 97 in an edition of 125 copies printed on handmade paper in 1912. Born in Baltimore in 1838, Smith was a distinguished engineer, artist and writer, who both wrote and did illustrations for Scribner s Magazine. Long after Smith s association with the company, I began work as a book editor at Scribner’s and remained there for 19 years.
Again I gravitate toward books in French, my college edition of “Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut” and a leather-bound edition of “Acis et Galatée: Pastorale Héroïque en Musique” On the endpaper facing the title page of the “Acis and Galatea,” someone wrote in pencil “Paroles de Campistron, Mises en Musique par Lulli”—words by Campistron, set to music by Lully The book commemorates the performance of the opera before Leurs Altesses Royales—their Royal Highnesses—at Lunéville on November 15, 1706. The “Acis et Galatcée”and the Hopkinson Smith originally belonged to George. The link to Smith is that George was a member of the Scribner family and himself a part of Scribner’s.
I marvel at how books reveal the contours of a life—or in this case, parts of a number of lives, how one’s passions, education, personal history are revealed in the books on one’s shelves. So much of my life is spread out now at my feet. I wonder, too, what it is about the French books that makes them seem to me like touchstones, like a refuge. I leaf through “Le Roman de Tristan et Iseut” with its heavy stock and deckled edges, its ornamented initial caps at the chapter openings. The text is Joseph Bédier’s rendering of the legend and it calls itself “un beau conte d`amour et de mort”—a fine story of love and death. Though bound in paper, it has been scarcely affected by the fire. I feel drawn to it like a talisman.
Wednesday, 11 a.m. I have come out to the farm with my camera, hoping to capture the scene in the barn and the garage. A friend has urged me to write about the books, and although it doesn’t address the problem of what to do about them, the idea has given me a sense of purpose. I focus, close-up, on leather lifting off of boards, clumps of pages swelling as they dry, marbleized endpapers exposed, naked now, with covers fallen away. I reposition a volume of Tolstoy on the hay-strewn floor of the barn to enhance the photographic effect. The front of its green suede binding, detached from the blackened spine, has writhed and shriveled from the pages under it. I will give the Tolstoy and many of the salvageable family books to my brother, who will want them for his two sons.
It occurs to me that I am achieving a certain distance now, though if I am, I am a little ashamed of it. Under the circumstances even a degree of detachment feels unseemly. But I begin to realize that a certain toughness has been operating under my sense of loss. In choosing which books to take to town right away, I have chosen books associated with family, George’s rare books, books I have interacted with in some profound way. Many of the books I treasure most, including my own modest collection of books on 18th- and 19th-century road-building, are already in town. The classics are readily available. I think of what my archivist friend said to me in an e-mail: “If you want text, you can go to the library.” I have known all along that, once Bob sold the house, I wouldn’t have room for all of my books. Though I would have preferred a calmer—and less destructive —process of resolution, the fire has forced my hand. Still it is one thing to contemplate simply throwing out so many books; it is another to actually do it.
Something else is beginning to nag at me. I want to know the source of the page by the flagstone walk, if the wind hasn’t already blown the page away. I can’t entirely account for my change of heart, but not knowing which book it came from seems a gap in my knowledge now. I realize that if I don’t find the page, I will always wonder. As I approach the house, I peer hopefully toward the patch of decorative stones where it lay the last time I saw it. It seems unlikely that it could still be there. And yet there it is. Still a little tentative, I look down and spot the running head under the page’s singed top edge. It is set in small caps and reads: “BIRDY.” The page is from “Birdy,” William Wharton’s beautiful novel about a young man who becomes a bird.
I have lived a life largely forged by the imagination. Or rather, I have lived in worlds, places created at least partly in my mind. I like to soak in, sink into auras. I often go to baseball games alone, absorbing the aura of the park, the rhythms and subtleties of each individual game. When I travel through my city, Pittsburgh, I travel not only through its topography but also through its story. Paris, where I have a tiny apartment on the Left Bank, is imbued with the language and literature I encountered long before I ever traveled there.
While still in school, I was immediately attracted to Baudelairean “spleen,” to the self-obsessed melancholy of Chateaubriand’s Rene, to Rimbaud’s drug-assisted “derangement of the senses”—forms of alienation I thrilled to but would have been too risk-averse to act upon in my own life. I was equally drawn, perhaps even more so, to the limpid understanding of desire in Flaubert, the delineation of passion two centuries earlier in Racine. Above all, though, it was the language itself that attracted me. I remember kneeling as a child at my mother’s side as she taught me the pursed-lipped sound of the u in the French word tu. Again and again she pronounced the word, and I repeated it until I got it right. People have asked what it is that so appeals to me about France, and I haven’t been able to give more than superficial answers. But I wonder if language itself is a place, whether the sounds, the shape of a language are a sort of landscape that speaks to the soul. When you move from speaking one language to speaking another, you move to another place in your mind. Is that relevant?
I think of the beautiful sounds of the words: heureuse, moine, soupir, pur, mémoire, matière, aurore. The soft extension of the vowels, the exquisite extended n in moine, fontaine. The music of the language is in the gentle consonants, the lingering notes, the open endings of words. These are sounds to luxuriate in, like lying in a meadow or next to a stream. Comparatively unaccented, the music is elegant, not extravagant. La langue coule—the language flows.
I think of poem lines, or parts of poem lines, that I particularly like. From Lamartine’s “Le Lac”: “…et l’aurore/Va dissiper la nuit”— and the dawn will dispel the night. The rising, expanding sound of ore in aurore, building like the dawn as the dissipating sound of nuit falls silent. From one of Baudelaire’s “Spleen” poems: “Pluviôse, irrité contre la ville entière”—February, annoyed at the entire city. The grumbling, dreary sound of the word Pluviôse—the month of the Republican calendar running from late January to late February, derived from the word pluvieux, meaning rainy, wet. And then there is the frisson of the poem’s grim last line: “Causent sinistrement de leurs amours défunts”— talk darkly of their dead love affairs. The word défunt deflates with a grunt. It just sounds dead.
I begin to think of the looks of words. One in particular persists in my mind: étaient—were, past imperfect, third-person plural of the verb “to be.” In my mind it looks like a mountain range. You could lie down, stretch out head to foot between the t’s. Then I think of a real visual onomatopoeia: arête. It just looks like a ridge or crest. (It looks like a fishbone, too, another meaning of the word arete. A grande arête is a fish’s backbone.)
Of course onomatopoeia is not an exclusive province of the French, as anyone who has strolled along a babbling brook or traversed a ha-ha can attest. It may be that I feel French more keenly, that it seems to me to get to the core of things, because it is not my native tongue. I search for beautiful English words. When I was a child, a friend of my mother’s used to tell me that the most beautiful expression in English was “cellar door.” And didn’t Henry James maintain that it was “summer afternoon”? It occurs to me that, as in “cellar door,” the music of the word itself can draw the heart to the thing the word signifies. I myself am partial to the word nevermore. Here is one instance in which the music of the English far surpasses the French. Think of Poe’s “The Raven” and possibly its most famous line: “Quoth the raven, ‘Nevermore.’” It has been translated into French as “Le Corbeau dit:’Jamais plus!’” No comparison.
One of my favorite expressions in French, “Détrompez-vous”—set yourself straight—is also mirrored in English, in the words undeceive and disabuse. But undeceive is a rather old-fashioned word, and disabuse derives from an archaic meaning of the word abuse. Another verb of the same type is the French dépanner—to repair, fix, from the French word panne, meaning breakdown. So the word literally means to un-breakdown—another charming double negative.
I wonder if it isn’t, above all, the music of the language that has drawn my heart to French books, French things, the language itself— if French embodies the music of my soul. If the music of the word can draw one’s heart to the thing the word signifies, does that explain why I feel so deeply the truths French words express?
With my camera tucked just inside the barn door, I pull out a few more titles to take with me: “La Cuisine Est un Jeu d’Enfants”— “Cooking Is Child’s Play,” an oversized, illustrated cookbook with a handwritten preface by Jean Cocteau; “Georgia O’Keeffe: A Portrait by Alfred Stieglitz”; “Moments of Being,” a collection of autobiographical writings by Virginia Woolf; and “Book Decorations by Bertram Grosvenor Goodhue,” published in 1931 in an edition of 400 copies by the Grolier Club in New York. Goodhue was the architect of St. Thomas Church in New York and the National Academy of Sciences Building in Washington, and designed buildings for the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He was also the creator of Cheltenham type. I stand back and look at the broad expanse of barn floor. Bob has ordered a Dumpster for the weekend, to dispose of the insulation and anything else in the house that he won’t be able to burn. He wants me to throw out the books I am not going to keep. I wonder if I will be able to do it, to hurl them into the Dumpster, just let them fly. So many are nearly gone anyway. But I don’t know.
Another question is what I will do with the books I have saved. I have talked to a book restorer, and he tells me I can clean off the superficial blackening with alcohol. I could also have the more important books restored. To fix a fìre-and-water-damaged book after it’s dried, the restorer takes it physically apart—removes the binding, removes the stitching, and unfolds the signatures—and washes the individual leaves in water and baking soda. Then he dries the signatures between weighted blotters, flattening the pages. Once dry, the signatures may be refolded and sewn back together. To save the binding, if it’s in reasonably good condition, the warped boards are taken out and replaced by new ones. The price would be in the neighborhood of $400 per book. If I had put some of the books in a freezer, as my friend suggested, I could have taken them out one by one, and the restorer could have blown hot air with a heater fan on the fanned out pages, then pressed them together hard with weights for three to four weeks.
But somehow I don’t feel entirely comfortable with the idea of restoring the books. Cost aside, I can’t help but feel that to restore them would be to deny a part of their history. The fire is a part of their story, and that story warrants respect. And if a new binding were necessary, it would also mean a loss of authenticity, however degraded that authenticity may now be.
Bob will be tearing down the rest of the house himself, burning anything flammable in a bonfire behind the house. When he told me he wanted me to throw the books I’m not going to keep into the Dumpster, I asked him, “You mean you don’t want to throw them into the fire?” Somehow the fire seemed cleaner and more respectful.
He looked at me over his shoulder as he walked back toward the house.
“No,” he said. “That’s not a good idea. Books are so hard to burn.”