Confessions of an Accidental Book-Burner


First Person

My name is Michele Filgate, and I am a book burner.

The first thing you need to understand: I love books. I’m the kind of girl who volunteered at the local independent bookstore when I was in middle school, just so I could get the staff discount. I come by this honestly; my grandmother was fired from her first job because she was caught reading behind the clothing racks. While some girls spent hours playing house and naming their dolls, I whiled away entire play dates alphabetizing my personal library with my best friend. Nowadays, I’m a fan of marginalia—but I cringe at the idea of even dog-earing a page.

In 2007, I was young and naive and penniless. My first job out of college was one of those typical sixty-to-seventy-hour-a-week gigs that so many new-to-New York dreamers end up in. Specifically, I was a production secretary, and later a broadcast associate, at the CBS Evening News with Katie Couric.

I worked long hours doing mindless things like organizing Katie’s scripts while we were on air (and in one case almost spilling water on her) and sometimes important things, like taking notes during a breaking news story. Needless to say, I pictured myself as Holly Hunter’s character in Broadcast News. For the majority of my CBS tenure, I traveled from my grandmother’s house in Connecticut. I’d make the hour-long Metro-North trip with all the other commuters, on train cars heavy with the unpleasant odor of stale air and egg sandwiches. At nighttime, exhausted, I’d sip a watery Gin and Tonic and read a book, trying to ignore the vibration of my Blackberry.

After months of this monotony, I couldn’t take it anymore. But my measly salary meant I couldn’t afford to put down two-months rent for a place. So when a college friend  told me a spot had opened up in his apartment, I jumped at it. It was a big sunny room—my own space! Yes, I had three other roommates, but I also had a door and a closet and a few mounted shelves where I stacked my books. I carried heavy cardboard boxes up the several flights of stairs. I unpacked The Book of Disquiet and Middlemarch before I even unpacked my clothes.

I’ve always had certain neuroses. My father was amused when I went away to a summer camp in Maine at the thought I’d have to face one of my biggest fears: bugs. When I considered moving to the big city, I  didn’t worry about getting mugged or shot; I was even okay with walking under a particularly noisy underpass to get home. What I was scared of, more than anything else, was bed bugs.

And, of course, shortly after I moved into this apartment, one of my roommates announced that she had found bed bugs in her room. I immediately began to imagine them crawling all over me while I was sleeping. Bed bugs in my hair, bed bugs in my nose, bed bugs in my mouth. We called the exterminator—and he showed up several times. We still had them. We called the landlord.

“What do you want me to do?” he said. “We have them, too.”

My roommates were calm and took it in stride. I, on the other hand, was a nervous wreck. I fled to my grandmother’s house.

I came back from a weekend escape to find my books piled in the middle of the apartment, thrown in a haphazard pile with those belonging to my roommates. The horror! I hadn’t, up to this point, discovered evidence of bed bugs in my room, and now my precious books, of all things, were mixed in with the potentially contaminated tomes. It was nightmarish.

During one of the exterminator’s visits, I escaped to a café near Union Square. I noticed a man next to me scratching his arms. We struck up a conversation, and it turned out that he too was going through a bed bug infestation himself.

Is this all NYC is? I wondered frantically. Are all of us just food for the bed bugs? I pictured a post-apocalyptic city where the bloodsuckers overthrew the humans, lording over them in their vampiric glory.

When I couldn’t take the psychological terror anymore, I broke my lease and told my roommates I was moving out. Before I retreated back to my grandmother’s bed bug free home in Connecticut, I was extra careful to take some necessary steps. Everything, naturally, had to be cleaned. My entire wardrobe went to the laundromat.

But what to do with my books? Even with most of my library in storage, I was still surrounded by hundreds of volumes. After much deliberation, I decided there was nothing to do but microwave them. One at a time. This was, needless to say, a long and tedious process; I spent hours watching the books spin around and around for thirty second intervals. But there was something hypnotic about zapping the books, knowing I was annihilating any possible eggs.

It was going pretty well until I got to Stephen King’s Insomnia, whose cover featured a frightening semi-featureless face draped with some kind of cloth. I had read Insomnia only weeks before,  riding the mercifully air conditioned subways and baking in my sun-drenched room. It was an entertaining story; one that kept me somewhat distracted for a few days from the post-college angst we all experience. I lived through the anxieties of fictional characters instead of my own.

Lulled by the rhythms of the spinning books, I guess I wasn’t really paying close enough attention. At any rate, I failed to note that the cover of the mass market paperback of Insomnia is metallic. Failed to notice, that is, until a scorched paper smell spread through the apartment. It was on fire.

Forgive me, Stephen King. It was my own personal Fahrenheit 451. The rest is a horrified blur: I can’t remember whether I threw the book under the faucet (even further damaging it) or if it stopped smoking when I grabbed it out of the microwave. I only know I was appalled.

Years later, I would host Stephen King several times when I ran events at RiverRun Books in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I never told him about how I destroyed one of his books. I wonder what his reaction would have been.

Nowadays, my biggest fear is fire.

Michele Filgate is a writer, indie bookseller/events coordinator at Community Bookstore, and critic. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Salon, Time Out New York, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She lives in Brooklyn.