Summer Reads: Tinderbox
Like all good books, Megan Dunn’s Tinderbox begins with a banger:
“IT WAS A PLEASURE TO BURN.”
To many readers, this will be a familiar quote from Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1953. “F451 is the temperature at which book paper catches fire, and burns.” Which is also the tagline for this classic novel, best known for its stance on freedom of speech and love of books.
It is December 2009; Borders Bookstores UK is in voluntary administration and liquidation and Megan Dunn “was sick of putting out fires” and the Borders Norwich bestsellers were:
Easy Slow Cooker Cookbook
Don’t for Wives
A job at the bookstore was supposed to make her a better writer, not a great sales manager. Her Borders lanyard said ‘Happy to help’.
The reality was that she was far from it.
Meanwhile, the future had arrived and the early adopters of online shopping decided the fate of book buying and end of nostalgia.
Fast forward to 2013. Megan has moved to Wellington and is writing a homage to Fahrenheit 451 as part of National Novel Writing Month. She has a month to write 50,000 words. It wasn’t going well. “It was not a pleasure to write.”
In Dunn’s attempts to rewrite F451 from the perspective of the female characters, she finds out what it’s like to be a failure. In her version, books weren’t burned, they were outmoded just like the tinderbox. She was an author of a book that perhaps nobody cared about. Her inner critic was getting louder as the word count expanded towards the month’s finish line.
Tinderbox is a book about a failed book, a failed marriage and a failed bookstore chain, but it is most certainly not a sad book.
It’s a brilliant book about failure.
It is at once an extended critical essay, a history of books and their censorship, engulfed in endless series of burning metaphors, all running a high temperature. Her love for books and writing is infectious all the while it’s breaking her heart – “Strike one: you’re out.”
There are hidden fact gems all over this piece of funny and super relatable non-fiction. From finding out about what a Penguin Donkey is, to writing tips, the magic of language and appropriation and endless facts about F451.
But perhaps most of all, this book is about the enormous passion and expertise compressing huge private emotions into minimal space. With every page, there is something more to be revealed, further facts to be devoured and endless burns to be ignited and extinguished.
Perhaps my favourite burn is the one she serves Jodi Picoult (an author she’s never read but is happy to judge.)
“Jodi writes book the way other people bake muffins.”
“Still, she also has the best advice for writers. You can’t edit an empty page.”
As any writer knows, writing is a matter of showing up and perhaps learning how to embrace our lives when we are not winning.
As the Tinderbox tagline says “I know what temperature books burn at. Half price.”
Tinderbox by Megan Dunn (Galley Beggar Press) is available at Unity Books