Miles of leather bound and embossed books graced the shelves of the original McMansions in the Gilded Age. During the 1890s, the newly formed industrial upper class proved their nobility by acquiring books by the yards to decorate their homes. Dunskey library features rows upon rows of books, gleaming behind bespoke glass doors and mahogany shelves. Sometimes, to this transplanted bibliophile’s exaggerated shock, we stumble upon uncut pages and unbroken spines! Books seen and not read!
In another universe, the heat beat down on the corrugated roof in Saigon. The Vietnam War had just ended earlier that year, and Anne’s father, Tony, considered the unimaginable: setting his tiny but beloved library on fire.
Vietnam’s nascent government had embarked on an aggressive campaign to erase cultural influences of the old regime, and this required burning of thousands of books. Anything deemed “bourgeoisie, pro-Western, pro-capitalism, and anti-collective” went up in flames.
Tony, at the tender age of 25, still nursing his amputated leg from a landmine, weighed his family’s safety against the preciousness of his books. In the end, he burned almost all. Inside each of his books, a bespoke inkpad stamp glowed in Vietnamese, “Ex Libris Nguyen Van Ton.” It was as though he himself was being reduced to embers. He saved a few, including a translated copy of Jack London’s To Build A Fire, for the children he did not yet have.
His mother, Nguyen Thi Giau, was forbidden to attend school. She never learned to read. In Vietnamese, the word “illiteracy” evokes a sensitive consideration. Literally, it means, “word blindness,” which carries a gentle understanding that lacking access to the written words did not mean ignorant or uneducated. Anne’s grandmother contained multitudes, and within her, a library of oral literature that rivaled the richness of the celestial tapestry. During those Saigon nights with power cuts, Anne’s grandmother would recite epics, unravelling tales of princesses and French colonialism in Vietnam on the cusp of a revolution, under a windless sky .
Books,, whether they exist in our memory or on our nightstand, are the backbone of our lives. To learn more about a history of book burning and to honour the written word, we recommend:
1. Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451
2. Rebecca Knuth’s Libricide; and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction
3. Anne Fadiman’s Ex Libris