Bruce Holsinger. A Burnable Book. New York: William Morrow, 2014.
Reviewed by Christopher Roman (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In what ways can academics engage with a broader public? There is plenty of debate and discussion on what exactly members of the university community can do to reach beyond our sometimes narrowly defined disciplines and engage with our local and global communities. At times this debate can focus on outcomes, as in, if the professoriate engages with the public in the form of Twitter or blogs, does it count toward tenure or promotion? Do blogs count as scholarship? (my easy answer to both of these questions is yes). But, sidestepping questions of “does it count?,” it may be more important to reflect on how we can connect to our non-academic or cross-discipline communities. There is the simple act of a lecture in a non-academic setting like a coffee shop. There is engaging with history, Chaucer, and spoken word poetry, as in the recent work of Patience Agbabi. There is reimagining communities transhistorically, as well as across the hard and fast lines of professional/amateurs as Carolyn Dinshaw has recently explored in her book How Soon Is Now? This is all to say, as well, why don’t we write more novels?
Bruce Holsinger’s A Burnable Book engages with the ways in which history, literature, and power intersect. Holsinger creates a medieval world through deep characterization, rich detail, and glimpses of shadowy mystery that engage with the time period immediately after the Uprising of 1381 during the reign of Richard II. There are a number of intertwining plotlines having to do with the possible assassination of Richard II foretold by a secret prophetic book, the friction between the lumpenproletariat and the nobility, the information trading that comes from rings of prostitution, religious, and middle class peoples, fraught relations with Italian politics, the knowledge-hoarding machinations of John Gower, and access to language. Holsinger’s novel is a fast-paced mystery filled with murder, bawdy language, and medievalist in-jokes that keep the reader engaged with the dizzying layers of medieval society always fermenting beneath the feet of those who are not paying attention.
A Burnable Book is in the tradition of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose amongst others. We have the problem of access to books and the problem of bodies. Perhaps these bodies are linked to the books (and considering Holsinger’s academic work in medieval animals studies revolving around the matrices of book production and animals, it is hard not to read one informing the other), but it is up to John Gower, unlikely detective, to solve the mystery. Perhaps it is unfair to compare this book to Umberto Eco’s magisterial novel, but it is worth thinking about how both books borrow from the detective genre in order to piece together a medieval world that is distant (and familiar to us). We are doing our own detective work when we enter into the archives or teach students of a medieval world in institutions papered over with medieval(ist) regalia. Where Holsinger’s novel veers from Eco’s is perhaps in scale (a king’s life is on the line) and Gower’s fallibility (William of Baskerville is probably fallible in his grief over a loss of books, but who can blame him?). And, Gower’s fallibility is what makes this novel so much fun and (re)creates him as an empathetic historical figure.
As this novel is set during the height of what we now call Ricardian poetry, reference to the work of Geoffrey Chaucer, John Gower, William Langland, the Pearl-poet fly thick. Perhaps that is one of the greatest appeals of this book; as a medievalist, I get to enjoy the jokes. But, I also think this would be the appeal to a wider audience; readers gain access to a medieval world not in a lecture or with a test at the end, but threaded through a narrative. This is to say, as well, that I learned things. I had not read Sir John Clanvowe in the past, so, inspired by an exchange between Clanvowe and Gower, I read Clanvowe’s The Booke of Cupide and The Two Ways, and his character’s depth increased. As well, a joke exchanged between Gower and Clanvowe referencing Chaucer’s writing as “tripe” made that dialogue even more amusing. Multi-textual readings thicken the text so one wants to reach for their Chaucer or Gower or Clanvowe.
And, most interestingly, Chaucer comes off as a bit of a jerk. Holsinger muddies the waters for medievalists by suggesting the medievalist’s favorite son has a bit of an anger problem, a wife problem, political problems, vanity issues, and some serious writing insecurities. Gower is always the lowly poet compared to Chaucer, but maybe that’s all right considering how Gower, despite his ability to know everyone’s secrets, comes off as a little more sympathetic than his buddy Chaucer. In a shouting argument only the best of friends can have, Gower shouts down Chaucer, “Go to hell, Chaucer,” and a reader can’t help but laugh.
Language and books. It is the obsession of medievalists and a bridge from modern to medieval. A Burnable Book is of our pop culture moment (not only because of our interest in the Wolf Hall’s of the world) in that television shows like Grimm or Sleepy Hollow (also falling within the boundaries of the detective/mystery genre) use the archive as a prime resource. In both of these television shows the true key to the mystery is usually not in the clues at the crime scene. Though the investigation might start there, clues at the scene obfuscate rather than illuminate. The referencing of older works that reveal forgotten and hidden knowledge are the true keys to the mystery. This is to say, if you would have already read about the marks left by a dragon-man (or, in Grimm-speak, a Dämonfeuer) or used a historical concoction that reveals zombie George Washington’s invisible message that he left in his Bible four days after he was said to have died, you would have solved things by now. The underlying message here is read, and not only read, but learn to read the past. Ignoring the problems of keeping centuries old manuscripts preserved in Portland’s humidity, Grimm almost always circulates around the problem of language itself. Some characters have wider language knowledge than our main character, and it is their ability to grasp Spanish or German that leads to a breakthrough for the hero.
And the matrix of problems surrounding origination and language is one of the problems that Gower attempts to solve in A Burnable Book. In Gower’s speculating about connections between the missing book, its dating, the problem of Lollardry, and who wrote it, Gower seeks out a forgotten library in Oxford. In my favorite opening to a scene in this novel, Gower walks into this library:
the first thing I noticed about the dark space was the smell: rich, deep, gorgeous. Cardamom, I thought, and cloves and cinnamon—and old parchment, and leather, and boards, and dust. (213)
First, how is this not already a Yankee Candle? Second, notice Holsinger’s attention to detail, this book is full of moments like this, and one notices the ways the work of the academic influences the rich textures of the description. Third, this is yet one more of these moments where consulting the archive opens up a path to meaning (though not in the way Gower at first intends). The forgotten, the ancient mechanisms of meaning, turn, revealing themselves in ways we (or Gower) may not realize initially.
Which brings me back around to language. The opening mystery is witnessed by a character who does not understand that the language being spoken is Italian. This is significant because some of the political intrigue working in the background of the book is misunderstanding and underestimating the Italian influence on English politics. Is this a way to jibe Chaucer for not owning up to borrowing from Boccaccio? Probably. But more significantly Holsinger is suggesting both the power of language and how it circulates among social class and the ways in which borders (both national and language-wise) are porous. It all bleeds through.
Cosmopolitanism revolves around the exchange of language. In this book medieval London and Southwark illustrate the swirling linguistic and social conflicts that characterize political, class, and gender struggle. Interpretation and meaning making are marks of the creation of a world. Holsinger sets forth a world in which who gets to make meaning and who gets to evaluate communication proves the fine line between life and death.
And Moral Gower has to tread that line.
Kent State University Tuscarawas