I’m speaking of the material one uses to get a wood fire going—dry twigs, thin sticks, or twists and knots of newspaper that will sustain the first, fragile, licks of flame, so that the larger pieces of wood will catch fire. Having a supply of dry kindling on hand is essential to building a fire, whether indoors in a brick fireplace or woodstove or outdoors in a makeshift firepit. As a verb, kindling refers to starting a fire, setting fire to something that will burn or, figuratively, arousing emotion. Etymologically, the word comes from cundel, “to set fire to,” thought to be of Scandinavian origin and related to the Old Norse kynda, also meaning “to kindle.”
There’s something very satisfying about building a good fire, setting it in the shape of a small teepee, carefully positioning the kindling so that it will get enough oxygen to catch fire and the flames are directed to the larger logs above, slipping the lit match in at the bottom, and watching it all flare up and slowly take hold. It warms your body and also kindles the cockles of your heart. Don’t forget, though, that the art of building a fire also includes the art of keeping that fire safe.
I suppose I have to mention (though I refuse to advertise) a commercial product, on the market only for a few short years (since 2007), that has appropriated this ancient word and still more primal human activity. I resent the fact that this brand of electronic reader seeks to be the object that comes to mind when the word is mentioned. As a book-lover and former co-owner of a small letterpress business, I resent that this device even seeks to supplant the printed book, repository of human knowledge for more than a thousand years.
If you think that this new means of delivering information to readers will be more durable or more enviromentally sustainable, think again. “The printed book is by far the most durable and reliable backup technology we have. Printed books require no mediating device to read and thus are immune to technological obsolescence. Paper is also extremely stable, compared with, say, hard drives or even CD’s,” writes Kevin Kelly in a New York Times article on the Google Books project, digital technology, and the printed book. Librarian and cultural journalist R. H. Lossin has recently given a lecture on book-burning, Nazis, the 21st-Century digital library, and the fascinating question of why both major brands of e-reader have names that signify the act of setting something on fire. Thought-provoking, eh?