Book Review: The Burning House (Edited by Foster Huntington)

The Burning House asks: “Of all the things you own, what is most important to you?”

The Burning House coverWe might often consider what we would save if our house were on fire, weighing the importance of our possessions accumulated over a lifetime. What can we not live without? Presuming that all humans and pets will safely evacuate in the process, would we haphazardly grab objects or would we have a plan? The Burning House provides a visual diary, with answers collected from people all over the world. The result is interesting, and at times, touching.

However, some people have a very strange idea of what is “irreplaceable,” or what could conceivably be grabbed in a few minutes. Sean Crowley, a neckwear designer from Brooklyn, seems to think that 33 items are essentials, noting that the carpet on which his items are pictured could be used to roll everything up together. Great, but these items have to be near each other first, right?

Also, I’m pretty sure that the guy who chose to save his Blu-Ray The Princess Bride can buy another. Or the person who saved their Holga. Those things cost almost nothing, in camera-terms. You can find another, even in pink.

Then again, who am I to say what is and isn’t important? The point of this book isn’t exactly meant to be practical, and several respondents say, “I know I wouldn’t be able to save all these things in time, but if I could…” We get to see what is important in their lives, what would survive move after move, what they would be very sad to lose in whatever circumstance.

Others are entirely practical. Brenda Bell, a sixty-year-old woman who lives in Pinetop, Arizona, knows that wildfires are a fact of life in her location, so she must always be prepared. Her photo is a suitcase full of snacks for her husband and the dog, money in small denominations, matches, a spork, a wool hat, hand warmers, and a first aid kit. Most everyone chooses some version of their phone, their computer (or external hard drives), passport/ID, and notebooks/journals. Because this is a photo-based book, there are a lot of photographers saving their cameras.

I think my favorite entry in the book comes from Nicholas Maggio, a 31-year-old photographer from Los Angeles. His one and only item:

Grover. When my house burned down on Thanksgiving weekend in 1987 it was the only thing I grabbed when I had to run out of the house at 4:30 a.m. It’s been with me ever since. If he was important enough then, he’s even more so now.

My brother would have also saved Grover as a child, though at that point in 1987, he would have been not quite two years old. I’d like to think that since he would have been too young to quite know what was happening, someone would have thought to grab it for him. Later, they became inseparable.

Runner-up favorite is 24-year-old Karin Öst, a shop owner and student from Göteborg, Sweden, who has a suitcase full of items:

Okay, I guess this sounds a little bit paranoid, but I keep this suitcase packed at all times, just in case there actually is a fire! Not all of those things are always in the suitcase, but most are.

The crazy, worst-case-scenario side of me thinks, That is a good idea, and I totally should do that.

So what would I take, in the event of having to grab the essentials? Again, presuming that my family and the dog are also making it out safe, I have photographed most everything I would take, but have bold-faced and italicized the items that are more likely to make it out in the event of a real fire, and the rest are theoretical extras. Let me be semi-realistic, after all. If it came down to it, I’d grab my bag and my family and get the hell out, but for the sake of this project, here we are:

  • Burning House items (itemized within article)My bag (not pictured, but it has my wallet/ID/everyday stuff, and is usually right near the door.)
  • The external hard drives (only one is pictured)
  • My notebooks, most current
  • Phone (It’s not smart, but it does have numbers I need.)
  • Headphones (I love them. I know I could buy them again, but…)
  • The limited edition/out of print books/zines in which I have writing published
  • Autographed The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks (She visited my school when I was 8, and she was cranky and British and wrote books I liked, all of which were/are awesome to me. Formative experience.)
  • Word Squirrel (My husband made this for me last Christmas when we had little money for presents, so we chose to spend on the kids and not each other. I love it so much. Those are computer keys with the squirrel, in case you couldn’t tell.)

And that’s it. I would be terribly, terribly sad to lose all my books, my dad’s records that I’ve inherited, and some of my music collection (portions are on the external hard drive), but I’d live. It would be an exercise in impermanence. Also, I know my husband would be saving some of his cameras, but he has also said that apart from the hard drives, there’s little he would feel necessary to grab.

Overall, The Burning House is an interesting piece of anthropology and a beautifully photographed series of “self-portraits.” It is a bit over-stuffed with Leicas and Apple-fetishism, but it’s certainly a conversation starter.

So what about you? Tell me, what would you take?

Full Disclosure: !t Books sent me this as a review copy. I thank them for the gesture and will continue to be fair with my reviews.

By Sara Habein

Sara Habein is the author of Infinite Disposable, a collection of microfiction, and her work has appeared on The Rumpus, Pajiba and Word Riot, among others. Her book reviews and other commentary appear at Glorified Love Letters, and she is the co-manager of Electric City Creative.

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