When We Burn Books …

book-burning-1682The burning of an author’s books…has always been the tribute that an ignorant age pays to the genius of its time — Joseph Lewis


In his 1821 play Almansor the German writer Heinrich Heine (referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Koran, during the Spanish Inquisition) wrote:Dort, wo man Bucher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen–“Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings.”  A century later, on May 6th, 1933, Heine’s books were among the thousands of volumes publicly hauled out and burned in the streets by the Nazis in Berlin’s Opernplatz. A violent outburst that, in fact, did foreshadow the blazing ovens of the Holocaust.

book1burningWikipedia defines ‘book burning’ as the “practice of ceremoniously destroying by fire one or more copies of a book or other written material.” The practice, usually carried out in public (like public hangings in Medieval times) is generally motivated by moral, religious or political objections to the material. Some notable and particularly destructive book burnings have included:

  • the destruction of the Library of Alexandria;
  • burning books and burying scholars (they mean ‘live burying’, folks!) under China’s Qin Dynasty (3rd Century);
  • Cathar texts in the Lanquedoc region of France in the 13th Century;
  • the Talmud in Paris by the French crown in 1242;
  • Arabic and Hebrew books at Andalucia, Spain, in 1499;
  • Servetus’s “heretical” writings along with the writer at Geneva;
  • Maya sacred books in Yucatan (1562);
  • Tyndale’s New Testament by the English authorities in 1525 and 1526;
  • Luthar’s Bible in Germany (1624) as ordered by the Pope;
  • Robespierre’s destruction of religious libraries in 1793;
  • anti-communist books by the Bolsheviks in 1917;
  • Jewish, anti-Nazi and “degenerate” books by the Nazis in the 1930s and 1940s;
  • Communist and “fellow traveller” books by Senator McCarthy in 1953;
  • The Satanic Verses by Muslims in the UK in 1988; and,
  • Harry Potter books in various American cities.

Book-Burning-ChristianIn the 1967 introduction of his novel, Fahrenheit 451 (based on his novella, The Fireman), Ray Bradbury implied that the Nazi book burnings inspired his story. I found his statement both eloquent and powerful: “It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one in the same flesh.” For those of you who haven’t yet read his novel (one of my favourite books, ever), this cautionary tale explores a fictional future society that has institutionalized book burning in an effort by authorities to maintain order and ‘happiness’. In Bradbury’s fictional world, firemen don’t put out fires; they start them. The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman:

“<i>It was a pleasure to burn. It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of historyMontag grinned the fierce grin of all men singed and driven back by the flame. He knew that when he returned to the firehouse, he might wink at himself, a minstrel man, burnt-corked, in the mirror.”

Bradbury wove a multi-layered political and social tale that followed one man’s journey to find his soul. Fahrenheit 451 explores the theme of intellectual freedom using censorship as his plot device. Montag is “everyman” who must make a choice for personal freedom at the expense of the “good censored life”. It is the choice all artists must make. In choosing freedom, we make an obligation to respect and tolerate those with whom we disagree; otherwise we are just tyrants and not really free. In 1795 Thomas Paine wrote, “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from opposition: for if he violates this duty he establishes a precedent that will reach to himself.”

The American Library Association defines intellectual freedom as the right of every individual to both seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction. It also encompasses the freedom to hold, and disseminate ideas. Intellectual freedom is the basis for our democratic system. We expect our people to be self-governors. But to do so responsibly, our citizenry must be well-informed. Libraries — and the free internet — provide the ideas and information to allow people to inform themselves.

comicsburningJohn F. Kennedy once said that “a nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is a nation that is afraid of its people.”

Censorship suppresses ideas and information that certain people — individuals, groups or government officials — find objectionable or dangerous. Censors pressure public institutions, like libraries, to suppress and remove from public access information they judge inappropriate or dangerous, so that no one else has the chance to read or view the material and make up their own minds about it. “Censorship … creates, in the end, the kind of society that is incapable of exercising real discretion,” said Henry Steel Commager.

When does simple disapproval turn into active disallowing; when does banning of books turn into burning of books?

I believe that censorship occurs when one submits to fear and insecurity: the bully being bullied and ruled by his own fear. Okay, we all fear; that’s only natural. We’re animals and fear is a survival instinct we all need and use. But, we don’t live in caves and hunt sloth anymore; that fear can be tempered by a civilized educated culture. Without the benefit of a nurturing faith and belief in the goodness of humankind, fear will lead to prejudice, racism and a general isolationist paranoia.

Winston Churchill said: “You see these dictators on their pedestals, surrounded by the bayonets of their soldiers and the truncheons of their police. Yet in their hearts there is unspoken–unspeakable–fear. They are afraid of words and thoughts! Words spoken abroad, thoughts stirring at home, all the more powerful because they are forbidden. These terrify them. A little mouse–a little tiny mouse! -of thought appears in the room, and even the mightiest potentates are thrown into panic.”

The danger comes when an organized group subscribes to a common fear. It is often driven by a charismatic leader, who has somehow captured that fear, harnessed its raging force then propelled it like a projectile. One’s anonymity and shared (and supposedly diluted) responsibility within the “mob” may compel the individual to commit irrational acts of atrocity he/she would never otherwise contemplate on his/her own. How many of us have been caught up in the mass enthusiasm of a sports match? We’ve all felt it; the power of the mob, its energy crackling in the air around our pounding hearts and cries. To yield to a mob-mentality is to subscribe to a condoned insanity, within which the ‘mob’ takes on its own irrational personality that is more than the sum of its parts…to become a kind of autopoietic entity that swiftly and ruthlessly dispenses its own perverse form of justice.

Perhaps for this reason more than any other, I see the artist’s path as a singular one, part yet apart from the crowd. Neither leader, nor follower; rather, a wizard and a “trickster”, a shining beacon, both reviled and honored simultaneously.

It was Victor Frankl, survivor of Auschwitz, who said, “what is to give light must endure burning.”Commemorative_Plaque_book_burning_Frankfurt_Hesse_Germany

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  1. You’ve shed light on a dark subject. Ignorance and censorship are fellow travelers who great motto seems to be: “Let us not think, but let others think for us.” Great writers, I suppose, are bound to collect book haters along the way. Maybe I’m a romantic, but I’d like to believe that book lovers, in the end, will always triumph.

  2. It always amazes me when born-again Christians try to ban Harry Potter, when the Potter series is so obviously a Messiah story. Not an explicitly Christian one, but firmly in that mode anyway.

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