On Book Burning and the Magic of Libraries

Diane Callahan
5 min readMar 28, 2020

If you had to choose one book to burn, which would it be and why? And would you even be able to light the match?

Most readers feel a gut-twisting moral repugnance toward the idea of burning books — and rightfully so. Even though it isn’t illegal, book burning often feels like an act of violence or a form of hate speech. It’s censorship in its most visceral form, and the villains of history are often eager to burn books. During WWII, Nazis destroyed countless books they deemed “subversive,” including the works of Albert Einstein, Franz Kafka, and Ernest Hemingway.

Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book, describes destroying a library as a form of cultural genocide:

“Books are a sort of cultural DNA, the code for who, as a society, we are, and what we know. All the wonders and failures, all the champions and villains, all the legends and ideas and revelations of a culture last forever in its books. Destroying those books is a way of saying that the culture itself no longer exists; its history has disappeared; the continuity between its past and its future is ruptured. Taking books away from a culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying a culture’s books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”

Still, when I ask myself if there are any books I would burn, an answer comes quickly: The Turner Diaries by William Luther Pierce, a 1978 novel that inspired the Oklahoma City bombing and other atrocities. The story is set in an alternate United States, where a revolution overthrows the government, leading to a race war to kill all non-whites and any dissenting politicians.

But as much as burning every vile page would give me the illusion of control over the uncontrollable — namely acts of senseless…

Diane Callahan

Fiction writer and editor, a.k.a. YouTuber Quotidian Writer. www.quotidianwriter.com