Two Great Works in Which a Man Is Killed by Books

If one has to die, there are worse ways. Here in earthquake country, I keep heavy hardcovers on lower shelves and save the upper reaches for paperbacks. This may not save me when The Big One hits, but at least I’d die knowing I’d done everything I could, short of sleeping out of reach of books.

Howards End, by E.M. Forster (1910)

Detail from Howards End
Detail from a cover of Howards End

He entered a garden, steadied himself against a motor-car that he found in it, found a door open and entered a house. Yes, it would be very easy. From a room to the left he heard voices, Margaret’s amongst them. His own name was called aloud, and a man whom he had never seen said, “Oh, is he there? I am not surprised. I now thrash him within an inch of his life.”

“Mrs. Wilcox,” said Leonard, “I have done wrong.”

The man took him by the collar and cried, “Bring me a stick.” Women were screaming. A stick, very bright, descended. It hurt him, not where it descended, but in the heart. Books fell over him in a shower. Nothing had sense.

The image in Howards End, of a man crushed under a bookfall on the eve of the modern era, may say more about the end of the reading life and the dawn of information overload than any moment in literature until…

Hiroshima, by John Hersey (1946)

Detail from the cover of Hiroshima
Detail from the cover of Hiroshima


Miss Sasaki went back to her office and sat down at her desk. She was quite far from the windows, which were off to her left, and behind her were a couple of tall bookcases containing all the books of the factory library, which the personnel department had organized. She settled herself at her desk, put some things in a drawer, and shifted papers. She thought that before she began to make entries in her lists of new employees, discharges, and departures for the Army, she would chat for a moment with the girl at her right. Just as she turned her head away from the windows, the room was filled with a blinding light. She was paralyzed by fear, fixed still in her chair for a long moment (the plant was 1,600 yards from the centre)

Everything fell, and Miss Sasaki lost consciousness. The ceiling dropped suddenly and the wooden floor above collapsed in splinters and the people up there came down and the roof above them gave way; but principally and first of all, the bookcases right behind her swooped forward and the contents threw her down, with her left leg horribly twisted and breaking underneath her. There, in the tin factory, in the first moment of the atomic age, a human being was crushed by books.

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