A beginner’s guide to book burning by Alexandra McCallum


You don’t know why you built a fire. It wasn’t cold. And the strip of grass between the wooden house and the wooden fence was so narrow that you’re surprised you didn’t set something alight. You were talking. About movies probably. And the computer games you hadn’t played for years. And the disgusting instant tea from the vending machines at uni. And aliens. It was about that time you’d used a screeching, moaning internet connection to download SETI at home. Somehow it was going to use your tiny hard-drive to scan packets of data and look for messages from aliens. You didn’t believe in them.

‘Hey,’ he said.


‘Do you think we should burn something?’ You feel his fingertips on your cheek.

‘Like what?’

‘A book maybe.’

A rock is sticking into your ribs. You roll over.

‘We could burn my undergraduate studies book. It’s so useless.”

You want to say ‘It’s so fucking useless.’ But you’re weird. And you haven’t learnt to swear yet. Light is leaking out of the house. Bright steady light from the big bulb on the ceiling and the flash-flash of colour from the crime show on TV. It reminds you that your parents exist.

The ink smells fresh and addictive. You flick the pages – all the way from accounting to zoology. Truth is you’d be happy to read a book on any of these things. Well – maybe not accounting. But this isn’t a book. It’s a database from the pre-internet age. The name of the subject, a sentence and a half to get you interested vital statistics like subject codes, number of credit points and semester intakes. By the time you close the screen door and head back onto the grass you’re almost spitting.

‘Forty five dollars I paid. Because they said it was compulsory. And I’ve opened it once. Just long enough to see that those little two dollar handbooks can do a better job.’

‘It makes a nice noise.’ He says – flicking forward to journalism.

‘So does this.’ You grab the book, take a random number of pages and rip.


You look up. It doesn’t rip neatly. Rs and Ms and Js are ripped in half and for a second you think you see them shuffling towards the edge of the page and leaping off to reattach themselves in midair. And then you stop. Because his eyes trace a curve in the air. And you know he’s not thinking about his girlfriend.

‘You still haven’t….’. He pauses for a syllable or two and you throw the pages into the fire. ‘have you?’

‘No.’ you look at the grass, at the strange ugly sexy curve of his toes.

‘Do you want to?’


‘No … but…’And now he is thinking about her. The girl who’s name you only remember when he mentions it. ‘But if by your birthday you haven’t…’

You rip and rip and rip and throw pages into the fire. “OK – yes.”

And we lie down again. The fire dies a little and you can see the curled, charcoal strips of pages and parts of words that didn’t make the jump in time.

You didn’t think once about how burning books. Any book. Was a tradition of dictators the world over. You remember being surprised at the force of your own emotion. You hadn’t known you hated anything. And now that you did you sure what it was you hated.

‘Which book would you burn?’ you said.

‘Mark the Martian. My mum got it for me as a kid.’

‘So that’s where it started? All this searching for extraterrestrials?’

‘No. Not at all. I mean SETI is real. Could be real anyway. But this is just the worst.’

“Come on, you read fantasy all the time. I bet you loved it when you were three.”

‘No. Never. It was just so. Eeeeeeeej.’

You realise Dad is walking towards you. Dad doesn’t give lectures. Not really. But then you’ve never burnt a book before. You sit up. That’s when the first strange thing happened. Because Dad holds out his hand and says,

“I thought you might want something else.”


The first thing you smell is varnish and you know that whatever it is has come from his bedside table. In the draws with the useless keys, business cards and the hankie you tried to ‘sew’ when you were five. It’s a book. How to Win Friends and Influence People.

“I think this should be burnt,” Dad says, and looks claustrophobic for a moment. And you know he is thinking of all the bad ties he has ever worn. You rip out the first bunch of pages. And the word success seems to jump out of the flames and disappear. You turn around to see if he noticed – your atheist Dad – lover of sacred music and rational thought. But he’s gone back inside.

You look at your friend. Is that still the right word? You take him by the shoulders and turn him towards the fire. You let your collarbone press into his back. You are hoping he will see one black E. Blacker than black – fly off into the night. That he will keep his birthday promise. Or that he won’t have to.

But what happens is more than that. Because out of the cold papery ash come hundreds and hundreds of letters. You see the word silk pulled apart as it shoots upwards. Each letter travels at a different speed and with a different mission. Is this an escape? Or are they tumbling over each other like puppies?

“I can’t read them anymore.” He says simply. And then they are gone.

© Alexandra McCallum

Alexandra McCallum is a writer and performance storyteller. She is currently completing a novel through a PhD in Creative Writing at Griffith University. In 2012 she was selected for the Tin House writer’s workshop in Portland, Oregan USA.