Book Burning

May 12, 2010 at 12:00 am 1 comment

In recently reading the delightful All the Best Rubbish written by archaeologist Ivor Noel Hume, I realized how sickened I am by book burning. My feeling in this regard is not limited to instances of burning books as some kind of political statement or for reasons of censorship. (These events, of course, infuriate me for a whole other slew of reasons, some of which KT has wonderfully touched on in the past.) Rather, I find myself disgusted with any kind of book burning, particularly when rare and old volumes are involved.

Hume gives us this rather horrifying story from his time in post-War London:

“…I descended to the basement to pay my rent and found my landlady busily tearing up old books and stuffing them into the furnace. She explained that the fuel shortage was such that she was using anything that would burn—including a trunkful of books left behind by a Polish soldier. Loose pages and ripped covers littered the floor, evidence enough that the majority of the books had been of considerable age and possibly even importance. I was able to salvage only one volume…printed in Paris by Philip Pigouchet in 1510…The title sheet had gone with the covers and many of the fragile pages had suffered from being thrown on the floor, and therefore in spite of the fact that this copy was thirty-seven years older than the earliest edition in the British Museum, its parlous condition made it of little monetary value….[furthermore, if I had gone] down to pay the rent an hour earlier, many other books might have been saved.”

As I read this story I realized how utterly heartbroken I was just thinking of the possible volumes unwittingly destroyed by this thoughtless woman. I felt momentarily guilty in wishing she remained cold rather than sacrifice these beautiful books, but then I thought about further about it and her circumstances—we’re not talking about some deserted snowy desert where she was forced to subsist in a yurt with only a case full of rare books for fuel and it was burn the books or freeze to death. She was in London, where the average coldest temperature in the winter is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit, in an apartment building of some stripe in the twentieth century. My initial feeling returned with a vengeance: how dare she burn those books?

Personally, I was surprised by the vehemence of my feelings on the matter. I couldn’t imagine a situation where I could be prevailed upon to burn those books and I was desperately sad at the thought that they had been. I remembered reading about Amy (similarly thoughtlessly) burning Jo’s manuscript in Little Women and felt the same way: almost inconsolable sadness followed quickly by anger at the nerve of book burners.

Since we’ve never really discussed book burning on here on Literary Transgressions, I would love to hear your thoughts and feelings about the topic. I can’t imagine that it would be popular in any corner, but I think there are many ways to look at it, ranging from the self-preservation of the landlady to the nefarious purposefulness of the Nazis. So, tell on, dear Reader! What are your thoughts about book burning?

(Also, sorry there are no images in this post. I did actually do a search for images of book burning but they were all too dispiriting for me to bring myself to post them!)



Entry filed under: Musings and Essays. Tags: , , .

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  May 12, 2010 at 6:57 am

    I think that for non-book people, it’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of meaning behind burning a book.

    In the case of the landlady, she probably never looked at or read the books in question, and pragmatically thought that she might as well burn these moldy old pieces of clutter rather than freeze (much as one would burn a piece of furniture in a similar situation). She had no way of knowing what she was doing, and I’m tempted to exonerate her — though it does make me wonder how many books were lost in a similar fashion.

    To understand how awful book burning is, the person in question must not only be a reader, they must have a profound reverence for print.

    In the same sense, I think book burning is only unforgivable when someone does it with full knowledge of what they are doing, or if they are burning books as a way of burning ideas (the Nazis, the Pope burning Martin Luther’s books, etc).

    Book burning makes me a sick inside, yes, but that’s because I’m a Reader with a capital R who rescues books from thrift stores much as some people rescue animals from the SPCA. Surely not everyone can be expected to feel the same way. As Elinor says to Marianne in Sense and Sensibility, “It is not everyone who has your passion for dead leaves.”


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