I was once approached by a TV producer to ask me if I would feature on his new programme about books. The idea was that viewers would vote for books which I would then burned. But even in jest I couldn’t do it (so I never heard from him again.) I don’t care what the book is, there’s something acutely disgusting, something essentially inhuman about book-burning. (Even if the book is by Dan Brown.)
The killing of ideas is a kind of murder.
Book-burning is always an essentially fascist act – it’s an act by those who think that force is the ultimate argument, those who think that the way to kill ideas is to kill the author, or burn his books. And books have been burned by all types of people: Catholic and Protestant, Jew and Gentile, Hindu and Muslim – all sides have lit the bonfires and thrown on the manuscripts (and quite often, the authors as well.) Books have been burned in Stalin’s Russia, in sixteenth century England and in a church in North Carolina.
Indeed, the latter case is quite shocking as, among the books apparently burned by these idiots Christian brethren were various versions of the Bible – anything post the KJV, in fact. (I’ll post about htat another time.)
In Fahrenheit 451, Montag starts stealing books instead of burning them. And one of the books he steals is the Bible – perhaps the last Bible in existence. He shows it to a former Literature Professor called Faber:
“It’s as good as I remember. Lord how they’ve changed it in our ‘parlours’ these days. Christ is one of the ‘family’ now. I often wonder if God recognizes his own son the way we’ve dressed him up, or is it dressed him down? He’s a regular peppermint stick now, all sugar-crystal and saccharine when he isn’t making veiled references to certain commercial products that every worshipper absolutely needs.” Faber sniffed the book. “Do you know that books smell like nutmeg or some spice from a foreign land. I loved to smell them when I was a boy. Lord, there were a lot of lovely books once, before we let them go.”
Faber goes on to argue that books show us the truth: “Do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life.”
Books can be evil. Books can be immoral. But in the history of biblioclasm, or book destruction, its noticeable how rarely the books burned are in any sense ‘evil’. The Nazis burned books which were ‘degenerate’ or the works of Jews; the sixteenth century English church burned the works of Luther and Tyndale, Emperor Diocletian burned Christian books, Peter Abelard was forced to set fire to his own works after they had been declared heretical. These books were dangerous, rather than evil. They were attacking the prevailing orthodoxy, they were carriers of truth and reality. They showed the authorities and powers the pores on the face of their philosophies.
Book burning is rarely about the suppression of evil; it’s much more often about the expression of hatred and fear.