bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Futility of Book-burning

Posted in Biblioclasm by bonaelitterae on 9 September, 2010

The culture of biblioclasm — the traditions of intentional destruction of books — holds for me a fascination much as the candle does for the moth. I can not, then, let pass without comment the news that a pastor of a church of 50 members in a small town in Florida will liven up his Saturday by buying twenty copies of the Koran and then dispatching them into a bonfire.

The act itself is, of course, pitiful. Why twenty copies? Why not two thousand or two hundred thousand? When, of course, the figure reaches the tens of thousands, it would require industrial organisation to be in any way efficient — which would not be impossible to arrange, but beyond the pastor’s means. Even then, the destruction could hardly expect to be effective: the book would continue to exist. And, when the number is so confined, the fire so small, the overwhelming impression will not be the smell of burnt paper but the stench of impotence. How puny the pastor will seem: perhaps even he will wonder to himself how many copies of the Koran will have rolled of the world’s printing presses in the time it takes him to dispense with one score witnesses to the Prophet’s revelations.

Book burnings have had moments of being celebrated activities, as I have discussed before. The art of biblioclasm blossomed as the power of the act itself withered: a culture of print made it rare for the destruction of books to be anything other than symbolic. Even the Nazis, with their industrial efficiency which the Floridan pastor could only dream of emulating, proved less than successful at eradicating books they disliked. And so they moved on to people.

The futility of book-burning being so obvious, it leaves the question of why the act of a little-known pastor has received such international attention. In part, it is the circumstance: the coincidence of the anniversary of 11th September with the celebration of Eid, the involvement of a self-styled churchman who has failed to grasp the most basic tenet of Christianity. It is a story which takes little journalistic skill to conjure up copy, even without the emotive pull that it can command.

The emotive pull is multi-faceted, affecting equally disparate audiences. In Muslim cultures, the destruction of examples of the Holy Book could be taken as act of desecration. Some Islamic scholars have pointed out the difference between mushaf — the printed pages — and the Qu’ran — the revelation itself. Armed with that distinction, it could be argued that even if all printed copies somehow succumbed to the fire, then the Qu’ran would survive, not least on the tongues of those who have memorised its words. A textual community, in other words, could exist without a written text. So, any book burning can not lessen the prophecies themselves, which have an existence, both conceptual and oral, beyond any printed testimony. But this distinction may have little relevance for those who see each copy of the book as sacred, as something to be treasured even in its most dog-earred and delapidated state.

In the west, book burning tends most immediately to evoke memories, or learnt  resonances, of the destructive force of the Nazis, bringing to mind images of Kirstallnacht and fears of a pogrom of books which could be both organised and popular. A fear  of repetition — not just of the act but of both the complicity, through involvement or through silence, and the spiral into infernal inhumanity that it signified — drives some of the condemnation of what is planned in Florida.

That  determination that what happened in the 1930s must not happen is worthy in itself, but in the desire for cleansing (as if full purification were even possible), there is the risk of becoming culpable yet once more: the incessant expressions of outrage simply make the flames rage higher. The media – the newspapers hoping to sell copies by its coverage — is in danger of giving an impotent act a significance, even a spurious power, that it lacks. It is as if they wanted to look into the fire and find something more substantial than a mean-spirited but futile act. And, of course, by drawing attention and so exacerbating the tensions, they may indeed will something more into existence and provide their own self-fulfilling prophecy. They are like the pyromaniac that can not turn away from his fire.

When Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave its secret to humanity, he was eternally punished for his pains. He managed to give us the power of fire, but not the capacity properly to control our use of the flames. Perhaps the gods were right.

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  1. […] that our western modern living has created between the destruction of books and burning, something about which I have talked elsewhere. Beside the power, etched in our cultural memories, of fire pales all other destructive […]

  2. […] whose existence is ended. That, of course, is not the case even though (or, perhaps, because), as I have written elsewhere, our society is culturally conditioned against this particular process of destruction. At the same […]

  3. […] first lecture was entitled ‘Book-burnings’ and he did his subject proud. I have argued elsewhere that our emotive responses to book-burnings, conditioned by associations with both Kristallnacht and the subsequent mass incineration of […]

  4. […] repeatedly out how the burning of books fails to suppress texts. This is a common assumption, which I myself have made: however many copies are destroyed, more can appear. That is true in most cases, though not all, […]

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