Keith Miller’s The Book on Fire, A Tale of Biblioklepts, Bibliophiles, and Bibliomania

Balthazar, the hero of Keith Miller’s agile and trippy novel The Book on Fire, is a biblioklept. He comes to Alexandria to rob the famous library, a cavernous, labyrinthine complex that still exists–under heavy guard—in Miller’s mystical version of that ancient Egyptian city. Miller’s Alexandria is a byzantine maze, humming with a turn-of-the-century buzz, a kaleidoscope world that strongly reminded me of the strange cityscapes of William Gibson or William Burroughs. Here, Balthazar describes his attraction to Alexandria:

This is the city of books, where children are admonished if they don’t bring a book to the breakfast table, where they’re ordered by their mothers to drop their books and go play on the street, where bedtime tales sometimes continue, chapter after chapter, till well after midnight, parents pinching their children to keep them awake. This is a city where men beat their wives with books, the women shielding their heads with books. A city of book-whores, who fuck for books, and their bibliogiglios. A city of book-beggars, who spit on your money, gesturing with their stumps to the paperback in your hand.

What a town for a book thief! Balthazar plans to rob the Library of Alexandria, but he spends his early months stealing rare books from private homes. Soon, he’s trailed by Zeinab, a book prostitute who burns each volume she’s paid with. After a sexual interlude (“like fucking a wounded ferret,” Balthazar tells us), Zeinab introduces our hero to a guild of thieves and helps guide him through Alexandria’s frenetic underworld. In time, Balthazar breaches the forbidden, intoxicating library:

I read impossibly gorgeous scripts. Scripts in which each hieroglyph filled a page and took a day to write, but could express an entire philosophy. Scripts in which each letter stood for a notion, so the writing dictated thought patterns rather than words. Scripts that had no meaning at all, or that started out meaningfully but then, as the author was caught up in the physical act of writing, became relationships of lines and shapes on paper, beautiful and abstract. Private scripts, the authors long dead, so the script stood isolated, unreadable precious nonetheless. Rainforest scripts of samara and turaco crest. Marine scripts of shark tooth and sand dollar. I passed through rooms of books the size of doors, each cover the death of an eland, and rooms of books dainty as ladybirds. Books written on communion wafers, grains of rice, sheets of ice.

For Balthazar, books are a drug, and the Library of Alexandria is the heady nexus point for his addiction. No wonder then that he becomes obsessed with the young librarian Shireen, whom he plots to free (or perhaps steal) from the library—a plan that comes into conflict with Zeinab’s own designs. And while The Book of Fire does have the strong, page turning plot of a thriller, that plot exists mostly as the bones for Miller to hang rapturous descriptions of reading and books and, best of all, his strange Alexandria, a city of marvels. Good stuff.

Books I Didn’t Read in 2011 (And Books I Will Try to Read in 2012)

Okay. So obviously a list of the books I didn’t read in 2011 would be, y’know, long.

This post is about the books I set out to read, tried to read, wanted to read, abandoned, neglected, acquired and thought looked interesting, etc. It’s also about what I want to—what I plan to—read in 2012.


A reasonable starting place: I wrote a post in early January of this year detailing the books I would try to read in 2011. I actually read most of the books I named in that post. But:

I failed to read past page 366 of Adam Levin’s incredibly long novel The Instructions, although I think I was a bit too harsh in my semi-review. Chalk it up to exhaustion.

I failed to even begin to try to read William Gaddis’s incredibly long novel JR. (But I swear to read it one year. Not next year, but maybe the year after?).

I failed to read past the first chapter of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love.

I read most of the Tintin collections I picked up last year, but I didn’t get to volumes 5 or 6.


Moving beyond that early post, books that I recall abandoning (although I’m sure there must be more):

I abandoned Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Italian romance The Marble Faun after about 30 pages.

I abandoned 334 by Thomas Disch after about 50 pages. Somehow simultaneously dense and loose, it struck me as intensely imagined and sloppily composed.

I abandoned John Williams’s Butcher’s Crossing after the first chapter; it was a great opening chapter, but I thought it was going to be, I don’t know, more like Blood Meridian.

I also abandoned Chad Harbach’s big book The Art of Fielding (after 100 pages) because it was lame (notice it’s not pictured above because I traded in that sucker), but I had a nice dialog with some readers who responded to a post I wrote about abandoning it, so that was a plus.


Books I bought in 2011 that I aim to read in 2012:

Correction by Thomas Bernhard. Bernhard was a repeated suggestion from readers in the aforementioned Harbach post/rant, and he was apparently a huge influence on W.G. Sebald, so, yes, looking forward to this.

The Reivers by William Faulkner. I read A Light in August this year and reread most of Go Down, Moses. My plan is to read one Faulkner a year for the next ten years.

Ferdydurke by Witold Gambrowicz. I struggled to make it through Gombrowicz’s bizarre jaunt Trans-Atlantyk, but once the novel taught me how to read it, I was enchanted by its strange humor and frenetic syntax. Over some beer and wine, I had a conversation about Ferdydurke with my father-in-law’s priest who is Polish. His pronunciation of Ferdydurke should win an award for charm.

I will read Georges Perec’s big book Life: A User’s Manual.

I have already promised to read William Vollmann’s Imperial.

There are many, many more, of course (too many, really).


Books people sent me to read and review that look really cool that I will be reading and reviewing at some point in the very near future:

Satantango by László Krasznahorkai: I will read this and review this in the very near future.

The Funny Man by John Warner: Comedy, drugs, celebrity culture.

The Book on Fire by Keith Miller: This one is about a biblioklept. It’s been at the top of my stack for a few months now, but I keep letting myself get distracted.

Thirst by Andrei Gelasimov: Apparently this novella about a maimed alcoholic war vet is funny. (I hate the cover).

Mule by Tony D’Souza: Middle class man sells marijuana cross country. (I love the cover).

Various titles from Melville House’s Neversink line: I’ve got a few in the stack.

Also: I got a Kindle Fire for Christmas. I actually stayed up really late last night reading free public domain books from Hawthorne, Melville, Whitman, and Dickinson; I’ll read a contemporary novel on it this year—Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, perhaps? Suggestions welcome!—and try to review both novel and the process of reading the novel on a warm glowing machine.

And: I’m sure there are a ton of novels that will come out in 2012 that I’ll want to read; I’m already primed for Dogma, Lars Iyer’s sequel to Spurious.

So: What are you guys looking forward to reading in 2012? What did you fail to read in 2011?

Books Acquired, 11.19.2011


Keith Miller’s novel The Book on Fire features a biblioklept as its protagonist/narrator—so that obviously piqued my interest. The setting also seems cool, so this will find its way close to the top of the review stack. Here’s a description from Miller’s site

Balthazar, book thief and bon vivant, arrives in Alexandria to steal from the famous library. But from the moment he steps off the boat, a veiled figure shadows him. Zeinab, literary prostitute and avenging ghost, will be his chaperone through the city of books. With her help, he succeeds in penetrating the underground library. But once inside, instead of ransacking it, he becomes obsessed with the youngest librarian, Shireen, who was born in the library and is herself more than half book. Their love story forms the heart of the novel. Balthazar schemes to get Shireen out of the library. But Zeinab has plans of her own . . .


Andrei Gelasimov’s Thirst is new in English translation next week from, uh, Amazon’s new imprint, Amazon Crossing. Here’s their description—

Masterfully translated from its original Russian by award-winning translator Marian Schwartz, Thirst tells the story of 20-year-old Chechen war veteran, Kostya. Maimed beyond recognition by a tank explosion, Kostya spends weeks on end locked inside his apartment, his sole companion the vodka bottles spilling from the refrigerator. But soon Kostya’s comfortable, if dysfunctional, cocoon is torn open when he receives a visit from his army buddies who are mobilized to locate a missing comrade. It is through this search for his missing friend that Kostya is able to find himself.

Thirst is a nice slim novella, and I enjoyed its opening pages, but I’ve got to grip about the cover. I get that the book deals with alcoholism, but ripping off Absolut Vodka’s iconic design is lame. I get that it’s supposed to be ironic or whatever, but I just really hate it. Anyway, I also hate the cover for David Markson’s Wittgenstein’s Mistress, so it’s silly to gripe about covers. Someone should make up an adage.