Book burning is done to express condemnation of the content of certain books (and often also music in the form of LPs or CDs) by piling up the books in question and starting a bonfire with them. It is a symbolic expression of censorship. Sometimes book burning is not merely symbolic but a real attempt by a government to remove all copies of books opposed by the government from circulation by destroying them.
The irony is that while burning books is an act of freedom of expression, it is done in opposition to others' use of the same freedoms, and such events are usually viewed as noxious by the general public. The end result is usually negative publicity for those holding the book burning, although publicity of any sort and getting people riled up is probably what they had in mind in the first place.
While in modern times book burning is largely a symbolic act, in centuries past it was a means of completely erasing human knowledge and opinions. Before the printing press, many copies of the written word were unique, and burning them therefore rendered the contents lost forever.[note 3]
Examples (in rough chronological order)
- The first emperor of China, Qin Shihuangdi, is said to have gathered all of the books (and their authors) that didn't have practical application (literature, history, philosophy, etc.) and had them burned and buried; this is known by the rather literal name of the "burning of books and burying of scholars" (焚书坑儒). Modern historians largely consider the story exaggerated; he may have had it done on a small scale to "make an example", but it's unlikely he actually did it throughout his entire realm.
- The ancient Library of Alexandria was burned a bunch of times, although at least some of them appear to have been accidental.[note 4] The accounts we have are spotty; according to ancient sources, one of the fires occured accidentally during Julius Caesar's siege of the city in 48 BC, although whether the blaze actually spread to the library itself or simply to surrounding buildings which also housed scrolls and manuscripts is not specified.[note 5] What is certain is that the last remnants of the library were destroyed for good some time towards the end of the third century, a tragic and priceless loss of ancient knowledge.[note 6] The Serapeum, a pagan temple which was referred to as a "daughter" of the Great Library, was destroyed at the end of the fourth century due to sectarian rioting in Alexandria; while some sources state that the building housed an "irreplaceable collection of classical literature", others claim that by this point there "was no remaining "Great Library" in the sense of the iconic vast, priceless collection" of scrolls". The destruction of the Serapeum is attributed to the Christian Saint Theophilus of Alexandria, although he was clearly "encouraged" by Emperor Theodosius I, who at the time was engaged in the "vigorous suppression of paganism".
- Ten libraries, including the House of Wisdom, were destroyed during the Mongol sacking of Baghdad in 1258. Baghdad was the largest city in the world at the time and was the intellectual center of much of the Western world, but the Mongol invasion put an end to all of that. One library managed to survive, but in recent years it's been threatened again by DAESH militants.
- Spanish friar Diego de Landa burned almost all of the Mayans' books in 1562 in an attempt to destroy their religion and culture. Only three books survived the blaze.
- During the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States was dedicated to destroying any literature it considered to be obscene, such as pornography. Anthony Comstock, the head of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, boasted about overseeing the destruction of 15 tons of books. However, "Comstock’s idea of what was obscene was expansive and included Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” anatomy textbooks for medical students and especially anything providing women with information about contraception. “Books are feeders for brothels,” he declared." The NYSSV would lead the charge to ban hardcore X-rated smut like James Joyce's Ulysses and D.H. Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover.
- The Nazis held large-scale book burnings in the 1930s to destroy all "un-German" or "degenerate" works. See also the degenerate art section in Modern art and architecture. In a 1935, a New York Times editorial decried the Nazi book burnings, noting that the books were burnt because they were critical of the government, whereas the concurrent book burnings of allegedly obscene literature in New York City were done to guard "public morals". What the editorial did not say was that the Nazi burnings were also justified under the guise of public morals.
- One particularly notable incident was the burning of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (roughly Institute of Sexology), which resulted in the burning of much of the literature of the time about LGBTQ+ people.
- Wilhelm Reich's books were burned in 1956 by court order.
- Book burnings in Chile were committed by the military following the 1973 coup that installed General Pinochet's dictatorship.
- Ariel Dorfman co-authored with Armand Mattelart the book Para Leer al Pato Donald in 1972, an anti-Disney and anti-American imperialism comic book that replaced captions in Donald Duck comics with scathing analysis. Dorfman worked in the government during the presidency of Salvador Allende (1970-1973). After the military coup, Dorfman was able to escape to a safe house. They immediately turned on the TV where they saw a live broadcast of a book burning by the military. Dorfman was shocked that there would still be book burnings after the Nazis, but even more shockingly, he saw his own book being burned. Dorfman believes he may have been the first person to have seen his own book being burned on live TV.[note 7]
- More tragicomically, the dumb-as-bricks Chilean soldiers even burned books on Cubism because they thought it had something to do with the Cuban Revolution.
- The Amazing Grace Baptist Church, a small King James Only Independent Baptist church in North Carolina, gained international media attention in 2009 for announcing a Halloween book burning of all versions of the Bible other than the King James, plus "Satanic" books by Christian authors like Rick Warren, Billy Graham, Oral Roberts, Jimmy Swaggart, and Mother Teresa. This brought the idea of book burning into the popular consciousness after a long absence — most people were unaware that burnings still happened, and the shock of the content to be burned was too much.
- Various fundamentalist churches in the US have held burnings of Harry Potter novels.
- Dove World Outreach Center, a church in Gainesville, Florida, gained notoriety when the pastor, Terry Jones, announced plans to burn the Qur'an on the 9th anniversary of 9/11. When death threats and pleas against the burning from prominent fundies and politicians were lobbed in his direction, he chickened out on holding it… until April 2011, when the church "judged" it and burnt a copy on the barbie. Then, of course, devout Afghan Muslims were whipped into a tizzy over it by shits-for-brains and killed members of a United Nations contingency. Then, of course, some politicians in majority-Muslim countries called for his execution while Western politicians blamed the old git for the riot deaths and the Religious Right and other far-right groups pointed to the whole thing as proof that Muslims are all violent savages. (They should be the ones deciding who to execute, dammit!)
In popular media
- One quote about book burning comes from the famous Jewish-German poet Heinrich Heine, who wrote in his 1823 play Almansor: A Tragedy a truly prophetic line: "Where they burn books, they'll end up burning people, too" (the line in the play referred to people burning or wanting to burn copies of the Qur'an). About a century later, a certain regime did exactly that. The quote now appears as a memorial inscription at Dachau.
- Several of Jack Chick's comics end with a book burning at a church after a new convert to Christianity renounces his/her former "Satanic" activities, and burns their Dungeons and Dragons materials, Ouija boards, Tarot cards, heavy-metal music, and those filthy romance novels with adultery and bad language.
- In the disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, several survivors camping in the New York Public Library use books as fuel for a campfire to keep from freezing to death. One of the survivors, a librarian, protests this decision, while another survivor suggests that they burn all of the tax books.
- Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 depicts a future dystopia of hedonism and anti-intellectualism in which books are forbidden. The job title of "fireman" no longer means a firefighter, but somebody employed to seek out and burn books (with the 451 in the title being the temperature at which book paper catches fire). In an example of supreme irony, Fahrenheit 451 itself was burned in South Africa during apartheid by government authorities.
- Otis Oracle, a character in the comic Bloom County, is head of the local chapter of the Moral Majority. He holds a book burning which the ever-mischievous Milo Bloom sabotages by bringing some foul and vile Pat Boone records to burn.
In the Bible
- Acts 19:18-20: "And many that believed, came and confessed and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts, brought their books together, and burned them before all men: and they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver. So mightily grew the word of God and prevailed."
What to bring
- The offensive materials
- Matches and lighter fluid, or other fun pyromaniac instruments
- Fire extinguisher (for when the priest stands too close)
- Chocolate, marshmallows, graham crackers, hot dogs, etc.
- Bible (however, burning the KJV is looked down upon)
- Hymn Book
- Fundamentalist, closed-minded attitude
Sikhs sometimes burn their own holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib (or just "Granth"). Sikhs believe the Granth to be an incarnation of their final guru, and hence treat it similarly to a living person. In Sikhism, when a person dies the preferred funeral method is cremation. Hence, when a copy of the Granth becomes unreadable it is considered to have died. Thus, the Granth is burned in a special ceremony. In this case it is more like book cremation than book burning.
Burning books as necessity
In order to cut down on stock, libraries sometimes burn books. Although it may be obvious that outdated phone books and other such materials are burned, antiques are sometimes also burned. They cannot simply give the books away in most cases, as any indication of which library the book came from will result in someone trying to return the book down the line.
Outside of libraries, book-burning is necessary for soldiers overseas due to the limited space and lack of return options. Sending them two boxes of your books — instead of, you know, actually useful supplies — in order to self-promote is not recommended.
Instead of burning books
Burning books is wrong. Instead, you should have them taken out and shot. (Banks in fact still has the copy in question.)[note 8] Even though they're cheaper, burning e-books is not recommended. Consider reselling, gifting/donating, or reusing or recycling unwanted books instead.
- Well, it is, since the paper can be recycled.
- Especially if they're kept intact with covers closed. Solid-state chemistry is all about surface area.
- Indeed, those who study written works that pre-date mass copying try to find every copy of old texts. Scribes often made errors or intentional alterations while copying texts, which can tell us a lot about the history of the work and how people responded to it. People often wrote marginalia in texts they were using; Fermat's last theorem was famously stated in one such note. And because paper, parchment, etc. was often precious and scarce, they were sometimes re-used, and copies of previously-lost works have been recovered from these with modern technology.
- Fire was a huge problem in ancient cities, as they obviously didn't have a modern scientific understanding of fire, nor did they have things like fire sprinklers.
- "During the combat orders were issued to set fire to the royal fleet, which by chance was drawn on shore. The flames spread to part of the city and there burned four hundred thousand books stored in a building which happened to be nearby. So perished that marvellous monument of the literary activity of our ancestors, who had gathered together so many great works of brilliant geniuses." — Orosius, Book 6, Chapter 15
- The Library was said to contain pretty much every widely-distributed written work of the ancient Western world, as every written work that passed through the city was copied and the copy deposited in the Library.
- The English-translation of Para Leer al Pato Donald, called How to Read Donald Duck, became a test case for the fair use principle of copyright law when a shipment of the books from the UK to the US was seized by customs. The authors prevailed over Disney, but only 1500 copies were allowed to be imported due to an arcane 19th century law.
- Of course, lethal injection (say, of a concentrated strong acid or base that will destroy the book's medium) might be considered more humane.
- Manufacturing Consent, Delivered at University of Wisconsin — Madison, March 15, 1989
- The Burning of Books 213 BC
- The Burning of the Library of Alexandria. Archived from ehistory.osu.edu.
- Theodore, Jonathan (2016). The Modern Cultural Myth of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p. 182. ISBN 978-1-137-56996-7.
- Where the books weren’t burned: Baghdad’s ancient library, Tom Westcott, Middle East Eye 28 March 2018
- The burning of [Maya books], Mexicolore 13 August 2016
- A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
- Bookleggers and Smuthounds: The Trade in Erotica, 1920-1940 by Jay A. Gertzman (2011) University of Pennsylvania Press. ISBN 0812205855. p. 142.
- "Culture Burns Bright" (March 18, 1935) New York Times, p. 16.
- LGBTQ Institute in Germany Was Burned Down by Nazis, Lucy Diavolo, Teen Vogue 20 September 2017
- Para Leer al Pato Donald by Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart (1972). Siglo veintiuno Argentina. Second edition: Para Leer al Pato Donald. Comunicacion de Masa y Colonialismo (2010) Siglo XXI Editores. ISBN 6070302338.
- This Chilean Writer Put His Life on the Line by Critiquing Donald Duck by Antonia Cereijido (Nov 17, 2017) Latino USA (NPR).
- How To Read Donald Trump: On burning books but not ideas by Ariel Dorfman (09/14/2017 01:00 pm ET) Huffington Post.
- How to Read Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in the Disney Comic (1975) by Ariel Dorfman & Armand Mattelart (1975). International General. ISBN 0884770036.
- Human Rights in Chile: Hearings Before the Subcommittees on Inter-American Affairs and on International Organizations and Movements of the Committee on Foreign Affairs (1974).
- STLtoday.com - Halloween Book Burning at Baptist Church to Include Copies of the Bible
- A Landover Baptist article
- Original line in German: "Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen."
- Quotes on Intellectual Freedom and Censorship: Book burning International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions
- The Guardian — The British Library is destroying thousands of books.
- Huffington Post — Bill O'Reilly Book Burned By Soldiers In Afghanistan
- (Apocryphal?) anecdote about Fahrenheit 451, comment #38 by error404 (June 28, 2008 6:24 PM) BoingBoing (archived from January 16, 2009). The shooting of Dianetics.