- Paper Bombs: The Blitz and the Aesthetics of Salvage
[T]hey hope these walls of books will deaden The drumming of the demon in their ears.—Louis MacNeice, “The British Museum Reading Room”1
Il n’est d’explosion qu’un livre.—attributed to Stephane Mallarmé2
Addressing an audience of BBC radio listeners on an early July night in 1941—barely a month after the end of the Blitz—E. M. Forster lamented that the year, so far, had been a terrible one for literature. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, and Hugh Walpole had all recently died, and their passing, according to Forster, marked the “end of an epoch, because the professional writer is coming to an end. I think myself that this is a pity, and that civilization will be the poorer if it happens; however, there it is.”3 Joyce may have died of a perforated ulcer, Walpole of a heart attack, and Woolf of suicide, but the death of the “professional writer” and the impoverishing of civilization that it heralded were being brought on by “economic reasons”: “What with the paper shortage, what with the bombing of stocks and libraries, what with the general shift into the fighting forces and war industries, publishers, printers, booksellers, readers and writers are all having a poor time” (Forster, “Books and Reading,” 145). Amidst all this destruction, Forster nevertheless found good reason to be cheerful: [End Page 455]
Books are holding their end up and so they ought to, for they are part of the battle against tyranny. You remember those bonfires the Nazis used to make? Well, this war is partly a battle of books against bonfires, and I believe that the books are going to win, and put the bonfires out.(146)
The professional writer was dying, publishers and readers were having a poor time, but the book still promised to save Britain from tyranny.
In a broadcast delivered later that year, George Orwell called book burning “the most characteristic activity of the Nazis,” and, in spite of recent attempts by scholars to challenge and demythologize the dominant cultural narratives of the war, we are still entirely used to thinking of the war as a battle between books and bonfires.4 But as Matthew Fishburn has pointed out, while book burning has “since become synonymous with the barbarity of the Nazi regime . . . such an understanding was by no means automatic, and the international response to the events tended to be perplexed, even bemused.”5 Indeed, right up until the outbreak of war in 1939 the bonfires were seen “more as an instance of stupidity” than as proof of Orwell’s warning that “if totalitarianism triumphs throughout the world, literature, as we know it, is at an end” (Fishburn, Burning Books, 45; “Literature and Totalitarianism,” 504). While the change in attitude from bemusement to shock is entirely understandable in light of the looming threat that Nazism posed to Europe—to say nothing of the dawning awareness that Heinrich Heine’s observation, “where they burn books, they end up burning men,” was being tragically realized—lurking behind the horror of the bonfires lies a more complicated, even ambivalent, set of attitudes towards the destruction of book matter.6 For Forster, the book is not simply triumphing over its burners, but fighting on behalf of a civilization that seems to no longer value it. With or without the bonfires, the era of the book is at an end. This article explores just how that end was imagined.
Books Against Bonfires
Forster’s intermingling of anxiety and optimism nicely illustrates Robert Hewison’s observation that one of the “bitterest paradoxes for writers during the war was that at a time when there was an unprecedented increase in the demand for books, there was a severe reduction in the means to supply them.”7 At the same moment that Winston Churchill was praising books as “the means whereby civilization may be carried triumphantly forward,” his government, under the auspices of the February 12, 1940 Control of Paper order, was radically cutting the available paper supplies to publishers to, at most, a mere 1.5 percent of total consumption.8 If...