Sunday, May 27, 2007

Book Burning

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.

 Wikipedia 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, eh?) 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 at various American cities.
In 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 this 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 this world, firemen don't put out fires; they start them. By the way, 451 degrees F is the temperature that paper catches fire and burns. The story begins with Montag, an ordinary fireman:

"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 history...Montag 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."

Then he encountered an old lady who refused to leave her house when the firemen came to burn her books. And he met the girl, Clarisse, who knew something of the past, when firemen used to put out fires, there were no informers and people were not afraid. A master of metaphor, Bradbury weaves a multi-layered political and social tale that follows one man's journey to find his soul and his ability to judge for himself.

I end with two quotes, one by Alfred Whitney Griswold: "Books won't stay banned...Ideas won't go to jail. In the long run of history, the censor and the inquisitor have always lost. The only sure weapon against bad ideas is better ideas. The source of better ideas is wisdom. The surest path to wisdom is a liberal education."

And one by Joseph Lewis: "The burning of an author's books...has always been the tribute that an ignorant age pays to the genius of its time."

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


josh said...

Did you catch this news item:

The same, and yet totally different.

Has this man never heard of ebay? or of donation to schools? or charity?

sfgirl said...

I couldn't access the article, Josh. Are you sure it's at that URL?

josh said...

That's odd, it works for me.

Try this link

sfgirl said...

I tried it again and it worked this time...go figure. Interesting news item. Thanks, Josh! I'll go in my next post!