Home burning books Burning Books…on paper—Rory Gleeson

Burning Books…on paper—Rory Gleeson

If your house was on fire, what books would you save from the flames?


In the companion series to our popular podcast, Burning Books, Rory Gleeson tells Ruth McKee which books he would pull from the flames—and in a fitting turn of events talks about the time his house actually did go on fire!

Rory is shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award 2021 with Cambridge University, and is the author of Rockadoon Shore (John Murray).


A book from your early days?

I read most of my early childhood books in the back seat of the car which then made me carsick. So my early book memories are tinged with the memory of faintness and puke. The Battle Below Giltspur by Cormac MacRaois was a banger though. Worth it.

A book you return to again and again?

At one stage we had The Complete Far Side Gallery, this massive hardback compendium, set up on a music stand in the bathroom. Bathroom trips became much more frequent. 

A book that taught you something important?

Reading The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien in school was huge. I’d thought that writing for fun, for a bit of silliness, or humour, was this inherently childish thing that I’d have to give up sooner or later, once I grew to be a proper person… The sense of fun in all Flann’s stuff was this massive beacon saying Nah.

A book that uplifts you?

Honestly, when I’m in a funk I tend to go for moody, sad, heartbreaking books, not uplifting ones. Nothing like an old cathartic weep to round out the day. For this, one recommends The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride. It scrunched up my heart. 

A book you associate with a particular life event?

Reading books while travelling is this amazing thing, the more discordant they are with the place the better, so for me it’s backpacking and reading Naples ’44 by Norman Lewis in the Scottish Highlands, Ulysses by James Joyce in Kenya, Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy in Morocco, Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell in Vietnam.

Turn down pages or bookmark?

Destroy your books with coffee stains and ketchup.

A book you pretend to have read? 

Mostly I pretend not to have read books I have in fact read, in order to avoid awkward situations.

A book you wish you’d read when you were younger?

I read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath in my mid 20s and couldn’t believe no one had made me read it before. 

A book that gave you bad dreams?

Frog and Toad Together by Arnold Lobel had an utterly feary story in it about the Dark Toad who comes to eat Frog in the scary woods. He skips to build up an appetite to eat Frog then goes mental screeching when Frog escapes. Fear. 

A book you are reading now?

In Praise of Shadows by Tanizaki. I recently finished up the BBC Short Story Award book by Comma Press: scouting the competition; plotting their downfall; figuring out how to drink their milkshake. I have The Art of Falling by Danielle McLaughlin on my hit list after that.  

A book you would leave to burn?

See below about the actual fire, but I did leave the wonderful Staying Alive poetry anthology by Neil Astley in my house to burn. It had nothing to do with the quality of the book. I also left Eimear McBride and Roberto Bolaño in there to burn as well, so there’s a fair indication of how highly I value my own work. 

You can save one non-book item: what is it? 

When I first moved to Toronto I got a very cheap room in a very nice house that did actually catch fire. I came home and found multiple fire engines on my street, spraying down my smouldering home. I told a Canadian Garda that I was a writer and all my work was on my laptop inside. A fireman then went into the sodden house, recovered my laptop and gave it to me. So yeah, I wasn’t concerned about books. It was all about MY WORK being saved. And it always will be. My copy of the Staying Alive anthology survived the flames and the subsequent hosedown. So that was nice. 


Burning Books…on Paper is our companion series to our popular podcast Burning Books. You can find the latest episode with Kit de Waal here.

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