Viewpoint: Book burning is no great trick

File picture May 1933 Books were burnt by the Nazi regime in 1933

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When Hillary Clinton announced in a recent news conference that she hoped the proposed burning of the Koran by a small-town pastor in Florida wouldn't get too much attention, everyone laughed indulgently, Hillary included.

Nothing raises the hackles like an old-fashioned bonfire, but timing is everything.

The high-school kids filming themselves burning Lord of the Flies for YouTube don't terrify us but "International Burn-a-Koran Day" is invidious enough to get our attention.


The new Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt

The widely held story about Caliph Omar being responsible for the loss of the Library of Alexandria (pictured above when it was rebuilt) is apocryphal. It is said that the Library was burnt to the ground by the Caliph in 642 because it was decided that either the books agreed with the Koran and were redundant, or disagreed and were blasphemous; either way they were redundant. In reality, losses and depredations at the Library took place over centuries. MF

In Florida, pastor Terry Jones has laid his symbolism bare announcing that his proposed Koran burning is meant to serve as a reminder of 9/11, because the book "reveals the true colours of Islam," and he wanted to see what could be done "to really show the dangers of what happened that day."

Such a statement is disconcerting enough, but it's got nothing compared to the statements on the internet. Anyone who imagines that the efforts of Mr Jones can easily be dismissed should search for one of the online videos about the forthcoming event and read some of the comments being posted by fans and opponents alike.

It is no great trick to burn a book, but many critics are haunted by the possibility that Mr Jones will incite fierce anti-American sentiments around the world.

At the same time, there is a due reluctance to call for the burning to be banned, and be caught curtailing freedom of speech. Certainly the authorities in the US will be reluctant to make any overt ban: in the past, the preferred option has been to have the local fire department refuse to issue a permit for an open fire. As this implies, for us moderns, fires are low-rent spectacles, and a book burner is more likely to be locked up for environmental crimes than for perceived fascist tendencies. At least we are all much too sophisticated to start making any comparisons with the Nazi bonfires (see box).

Battle of the books

While censorship, broadly defined, exists in all countries, it is certainly true that America has a vexed relationship with the symbolism of the "book", and its fair share of censors.


Salman Rushdie
  • There was destruction of books under Councillor Li Ssu in China in 213 BCE. One of the sad aspects of this was that representative copies of many of the works were kept in a central library after the suppression, but when this library later burnt to the ground they were lost.
  • Numberless books were destroyed after the publication of the Catholic "Index" (list of prohibited book in the 16th Century.
  • Book-burnings took place just months after the Nazis took power in 1933. Piles of books by Jewish, communist, or 'degenerate' authors were stacked high and set alight.
  • The destruction of the Library of Louvain, burnt to the ground in the wake of the German advance in 1914. It was burnt to the ground a second time in 1940.
  • Copies of Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses were burnt in the UK after Iranian Muslim leader Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa against the author.

There have been many pitched battles, usually in the shadows of the local town or school library. In Chicago in the 1920s the mayor "Big Bill" Thompson started a movement to have "pro-British" books taken outside and burnt, while in St Louis in 1939 three copies of the Grapes of Wrath were destroyed by librarians because of "vulgar words". Slaughterhouse Five routinely gets dumped from school libraries even now for the same reason.

These fires play on the way in which people identify with books. On a personal level, we are forever being asked to name our favourite book, and the answer is considered a guide to someone's identity, as reliable as knowing their favourite colour or their star-sign. This might work if the answer is Mein Kampf or Lord of the Rings, but otherwise is pretty sketchy. Similarly, we are always being asked what books we would take to that desert island.

The issue of book burning also speaks to our reluctance to be considered a censor. This reluctance can even be seen in most pro-censorship writings, nearly all of which have loopholes: even staunch proponents of a free press are often uneasy with the monsters they are making.

Emotional attachment

Among the book-rich, there is a wariness about exhibiting too much emotional attachment to just one book. We often associate such passion with adolescence (a teenager reading Twilight), ignorance (a grown-up reading Twilight), or madness (John Lennon's killer Mark David Chapman on the stoop reading Catcher in the Rye).

File picture of man reading Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960 In 1960 the Lady Chatterley's Lover became the subject of an obscenity trial in the UK

It is not surprising that these personal fears and superstitions about books can have some significance to a larger political event. What is unusual about Mr Jones is his target: most small town preachers are more worried about the kids reading Harry Potter or listening to Elvis LPs, rather than a grand political statement. That is, most religious-inspired bonfires have more in common with the book burning scene in the New Testament, in which the good people of Ephesus voluntarily renounce their own books, burning them to show their sincerity (Acts 19:19).

It is a truism to say that working out which books are being banned is an easy guide to understanding the society that is banning them. The Nazis banned communists and Jewish authors, McCarthy railed against the Reds, repressed old Britain struggled with Lady Chatterley, and so on. And this leads to a second truism: the censors of yesterday, no matter how sinister, always seem quaint.

What is frightening is not so much Jones and his friends, as they bridle under the weight of media scrutiny, but how the event is being used as a stalking horse in the great clash of symbols. If people can't get past this level of brute symbolism, it's hard to stay optimistic. Books will drive us mad, but burning them won't help.

Matthew Fishburn is the author of Burning Books, a chronicle of book-burning through the ages

Your comments on the Koran-burning plan

It is clear that freedom of expression must not be put behind the fear of offending a religon, but also we must consider the result of our expression. With any freedom comes the responsability for it. I would ask, if the BBC and other news networks will film the book burning or take the moral choice not too?

Simon Densham, Winterthur, Switzerland

I don't agree with the burning of books. However, Mr. Fishburn conflates the banning, censoring and burning of books by governments with the acts of a private church. A private entity in the US can't censor anybody or violate the 1st Amendment, because the 1st Amendment only applies to what government entities can't do.

Tom Hoffman, Venice, Florida

Freedom of speech is a very important part of any democracy. The right to protest, the right to express views that are not in keeping with the majority or large minorities of a population. Pastor Jones has the right to express his views about what he thinks and feels about Islam, however misguided and ignorant. But freedom of expression must be like all rights limited for the greater good of society. In Ireland, in the UK and in many countries in Europe the freedom to express our views are liberal but limited with the notion that we must, in expressing ourselves, not incite hatred. The public burning of the Koran can only be viewed as a deliberate act to incite hatred. The world is outraged and comes together in it condemnation but the extremes benefit. The ignorant and the malignant will use such sinister act for their own causes. I can not see what anyone in Europe can do about Pastor Jones and his followers, but at the very least i believe that some statement should be made banning the right of anyone who takes part in the burning of the Koran from ever stepping foot in any EU country. It is the only practical act that we in Europe can do to express what I believe is our combined outrage at Pastor Jones.

Vincent Heneghan, Dublin, Ireland

It seems that Matthew Fishburn has lost the point of what is actually going on here; It's true, book burning is no great trick, but then again the Qur'an is not a mere book, as the Muslims believe it is the word of God, sent by God, and fully unedited by human beings. Unlike other religious scriptures, you will not find two different Arabic Qur'ans anywhere in the world as God has vowed to protect this Holy book. Therefore, burning a book which Muslims believe is completely the pure word of God, is in no way acceptable and there is no justification whatsoever for this cowardly act.

Hamid Muhsin, London

If the media and politicians didn't say anything about it, then nobody would even know about it. Drawing attention to it just gives them the publicity they wanted. I would have ignored the whole thing, if they want to burn books let them. Nobody even raises an eyebrow when books or flags are burned in the Middle East, why should this be any different?

Sean, Oxford, UK

He is a US citizen destroying his own property, he is in no way interfering with other people's rights to own and enjoy their property. How dare Obama and the State department come out and call their own citizen "disgraceful" for freely exercising his 1st Amendment rights and harming not a single person? The US Army are against him doing it in spite of them ostensibly fighting to protect his rights as an American. Who said Americans can't do irony? People are completely within their rights to criticise him and ask him not to do it, but the government should not. The media is the real problem here, he only has ~50 followers. Only 51 people would have known about this had the media not realised that they could sell papers and air time if they made this a big deal.

Paul A, London

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