Dispatches | October 05, 2011

A couple of weeks ago, the Columbia fire department came to the campus of the University of Missouri and torched a dorm room on purpose.  Campus administrators cleared the preachers out of our Speaker’s Circle for the day and erected a small, wooden room the size of a dorm room.  They filled it with student-oriented things like a desk, a poster, a bed and a computer.  They were having a safety demonstration, the kind of demonstration where no one gets Maced or arrested, where instead students learn how quickly their dorm rooms can go up in flames if they’re not careful.

This event is held every year.  I didn’t watch last year’s demonstration, nor did I watch this year’s.  Last year, though, I saw the aftermath of the fire – all the room’s plastic melted, the comforter scorched, everything become debris.  This year, I saw their setup before the fire, and I felt confident I knew what would happen between these two stages of the event.  There would be a fire and it would burn everything.

I didn’t watch the fire, but I spent some time watching firefighters set the scene.  The room stood right in front of the library, which someone actually set fire to just a couple of weeks before.  As the little room stood on the brink of immolation, I couldn’t help but notice that there were books in it.

Only one of them I recognized from a distance of fifty feet – The Riverside Shakespeare, which is unmistakable in its bulk and its cover’s color scheme.  There was a whole row of other books on the shelf above the hypothetical student’s bed, but none were as obvious as TRS, though I thought I spotted a couple of Norton Critical Editions.  I didn’t want to get too close to the display, nor did I want to ask the firefighters in attendance what the books were, as I get nervous when people notice that I exist in public.  So I went inside and waited for the room to burn.  When I returned, I managed to get nearer to the scene.  I learned that in addition to Shakespeare, Malcolm Gladwell was among the authors represented among the burnt literature.  A crispy, flaky copy of one of his novels was on the dorm room floor.  The damage to it was bad enough that I couldn’t read the title, which would have been the most I’ve ever read of a Malcolm Gladwell novel.

Most of the books’ titles were rendered illegible by the fire.  On one, every word was scorched except for the name “Raymond.”  Immediately I thought perhaps it was a Raymond Chandler novel.  It could have also been a book of Raymond Carver stories, but it could just as easily have been Raymond E. Feist’s At the Gates of Darkness: Book Two of the Demonwar Saga.

At our tumblr page this week, we’re linking videos of campus dorm room burning demonstrations from across America.  Starting this morning, we’ve also begun featuring brief Q&As with some of our contributors.  Consider following following us on tumblr, or making an occasional visit.