09 April 2009

Anyway, They Won't Be Able to Read It

Some time in March, in Maine Township, which is not in Maine but in fact is an unincorporated region in central Illinois, someone just about lost their home burning books in the fireplace.

North Maine Fire Marshall Arnie Witzke said gaps that formed in the mortar between aging fireplace bricks allowed outside air to get inside the fireplace. “That, combined with the extreme heat generated by the large amount of paper material and ink being burned caused a fire to grow in the chimney and fireplace wall,” Arnie said.

This story is repeated every winter anywhere wood stoves meet old chimneys. However, it was the book burning aspect of this conflagration that got my attention.

What were the titles of the burned books? Why those particular books? How much heat would an old book give if an old book could give heat? Are burned books hotter than scorched newspapers? Were some books saved for later? If not, what happened the next cold night? Is burnt ink toxic? Did the homeowner run out of furniture to burn?

We need follow-up on this story. We need details. We need safer chimneys.

Meanwhile, in Canada, a 1,553 page, five inch thick Webster’s Dictionary borrowed from a library in Ontario in 1899 was returned 110 years late. The fine would have been $9,000, but local librarians waived it.

"It's amazing ... It's great to see a book from here come back after all this time. I'd just like to see one (returned) that's just been gone a month," librarian Ruth Blanchard said. "And I've been involved with libraries for 36 years and I've heard all the excuses," she added.

There’s more to this story, but all that’s important is the book got returned.

You don’t need to know that Mutt Baird, scion of the Baird family, carried the dictionary on a skid from Canada into New York over the frozen St. Lawrence river, then journeyed to Colorado, where the book languished in the Rockies for more than a century, from where Uncle Mutt’s descendants returned it to Canada this month.

Returned just in time for big printed dictionaries to be replaced by their online counterparts. Thanks a lot, descendants of Mutt. You might have thought of that before you went and invented the World Wide Web.

When I scan the World Wide Web for news about books I find stories that read like this one: Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, is complaining that “school reforms have destroyed English as a subject and denied children the chance to read books.”

British literacy as measured by standard tests is well up, but the teaching of English, in all its subtlety and glory, apparently is being overlooked.

In a speech to her association, Bousted said “...literacy, as a subject, is based on the naming of parts. Children rarely read whole books; they read parts of books - extracts. These extracts are mined for adjectives, and adverbs, and active verbs, and nouns.

“And so a whole generation of children have lost the opportunity, in school, to learn how to talk and how to listen to others," she said. "And for those children who spend their lives at home cocooned in front of the television, interacting with no-one, this loss will be incalculable."

A high level to-do in London the other day makes Bousted’s argument for her.

When photographers snapped pictures of a Secret document being carried into 10 Downing Street by Britain’s most senior anti-terrorist policeman, those who could read were accidentally alerted to a planned operation against a suspected al-Qaeda cell.

Bob Quick, the Assistant Commissioner who didn’t close the cover on these secret documents, has apologized and resigned. Photographer Steve Back, who also is a magistrate, said “(the Assistant Commissioner) looked at us. He knew we were there.”

The photographer claimed he had tried to warn the Government that photographers were able to read top secret papers when people go through the door of 10 Downing Street. He said, "I have told Downing Street before that the quality of lenses and digital lenses means that we can read ministerial papers.”

This proves it. Photographers, at least some of them, can read.

So, officials: Go ahead and wave your secret docs at the fish and chips crowd. They won’t be able to read them anyway.


Book Burning Leads to Chimney Fire: "If you have a fireplace, and if you burn wood, you should have it cleaned out every year," he said.

Book Returned 110 Years Late

School Reforms teach literacy, not English

Bob Quick resigns

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