On Book Burning and the Magic of Libraries

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 violence — those ideas would still exist in the world. Burning books sends a message of fear, which stems from the knowledge that the thoughts and ideas found in books can inspire actions, which can lead to revolutions and acts of terrorism, to national reform and widespread panic.

No matter how much I despise a book, destroying thoughts can only be a bad omen. Much like with human eugenics, the burning of one book leads to a widening criteria for which individuals deserve to survive and which don’t, and soon enough, society’s valuable diversity of thought is lost forever.

“Once a government is committed to the principle of silencing the voice of opposition, it has only one way to go, and that is down the path of increasingly repressive measures, until it becomes a source of terror to all its citizens and creates a country where everyone lives in fear.” — Harry S. Truman

Yet there comes a point when books must be treated like the objects they are. Publishers shred millions of unsold books every year into “pulp” to be recycled into clean paper (see this article in The Guardian about where “books go to die”).

Paper sorted into bales at a recycling center (Photo: Chris Bentley)

Even so, many books don’t ever truly die. Somewhere, tucked away on a library shelf, a copy might exist, preserved for generations to come. As storehouses of thought, libraries strive to protect humanity’s knowledge from erasure in any form. They aren’t immune to decay and destruction, of course, as shown in how the Great Library of Alexandria fell into decline. (Contrary to popular belief, it was not a fire that destroyed the library but anti-intellectualism; Ptolemy VIII Physcon’s militaristic rule led to the massacre of prominent intellectuals, with others sent into exile.)

Book burning and the history of archives are the subjects of Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, a love letter to libraries, with a focus on the Los Angeles Public Library’s past and present. Orlean describes how the largest library fire in American history at the LAPL was overshadowed by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in April 1986. Over 400,000 volumes were completely destroyed, with over 700,000 works suffering from water or smoke damage. The fire’s cause was likely arson.

Some human knowledge will inevitably be lost to the whims of time and human cruelty. But the way to preserve the stories that matter most to us — to protect them from those who would seek to destroy freedom of thought — is to read them. To share them. To seek to understand ourselves and the world around us on a deeper level.

“It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries — and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up — not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”

― Susan Orlean, The Library Book

Ray Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451, originally titled The Fireman, on a rental typewriter in the basement of the LAPL, a fact that Orlean highlights in her book. Unable to afford college, Bradbury instead went to the library three days a week for ten years and consumed hundreds of books. He has long contended that Fahrenheit 451 is not really about censorship through book burning but about intellectual indifference, the dumbing down of society thanks to mindless entertainment.

“‘Remember, the firemen are rarely necessary. The public itself stopped reading of its own accord.’” — Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

We are what we read, in a sense, and the value we place on books shapes our culture. It’s why book burning and banning should continue to be viewed as a heinous act, no matter the book in question. It’s why we must support our libraries, which have transformed into more than a haven for bibliophiles — they’re a community gathering space, the people’s university, and one of the few places everyone can enjoy without paying heed to the almighty dollar.

In the words of Russian poet Joseph Brodsky, “There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them.”

Seattle Public Library

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

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