On The Ethics of Book Burning

E M Forster (1922)

On The Ethics of Book Burning
by Nick Lord Lancaster

These are the facts of the matter. The warehouse fire was entirely accidental. I don’t know the cause of it; I’m not privy to that level of information. My role in the story was to write the letters to the authors, regretfully informing them that thousands of copies, entire editions of their works, had been utterly destroyed. And chief among them was E. M. Forster, whose book Alexandria: A History and a Guide was one of the casualties.

The irony is not lost on me, incidentally. The contents of the Library of Alexandria destroyed in a fire (or, according to scholars, multiple fires) and then a book about Alexandria suffering the same fate.

Fortunately the building and its contents had been insured, and thus we were able to accompany our heavy-hearted news with a cheque for a considerable sum of money in compensation. I do not recall Mr. Forster’s specific response, but some other authors were rather buoyed by the money. After all, a new edition could be printed and so their works would eventually find their audience. And in the meantime, well, suffice it to say that in all my years working for publishers I have never known an author complain of too much money!

The situation was unfortunate, but we had dealt with it. Or so we thought.

Not long after, when the remains of the building were being cleared, a cellar was found to have escaped the conflagration. And what should that cellar contain, but the printed copies of Alexandria! Countless other books were still lost, of course, but this discovery was disproportionately comforting. Even though the fire was accidental, it still felt shameful to be involved, however inadvertently, with the burning of books. Finding that something had survived, therefore, was a huge relief.

Nonetheless, it soon became clear that this left us in a somewhat awkward position. On the one hand, we were grateful for the survival of the work, and thus the possibility of releasing it to the public sooner and with less effort than we had otherwise anticipated. On the other hand, the insurance company had assessed the loss, issued their remuneration, and were satisfied that the whole sorry situation had been resolved. To trouble them further – the business of insurance being what it is – might have led to financial and legal complications.

Which is scant justification, of course, but what else could we have done?

Nick Lord Lancaster’s work has been published in Maudlin House, KYSO Flash, The Linnet’s Wings, Saturday Night Reader and Flash Fiction Magazine. He lives in Essex with his wife and two daughters (one human, one canine). Read more at nicklordlancaster.tumblr.com or follow @nlordlancaster.

Image detail from a photograph of E.M. Forster with Lady Ottoline Morell’s pug Soie, taken by Lady Ottoline Morell in 1922.  Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.