Book Burning, 213 BC–2011 AD

A library’s mission is to facilitate the spread of information. There is no greater action contrary to this goal than book burning.

Since ancient times, people from virtually all religions and societies have burned books as a form of censorship, protest, or hate mongering.

It is no accident that these violent acts have often been committed in parallel with gruesome executions of heretics, scholars, and enemies of the state.

Nazis burning books   Nazis burning books

Each of the titles displayed here (and in the physical exhibit) have, at some point in time, been burned. Consider them a warning, for there will surely be future fights against the sharing of ideas.

Fire’s Long History of Cultural Significance

Saint Dominic and the Albigenses

The control of fire by early humans, for warmth and cooking, played a critical role in our evolution. All early cultures recognized fire as one of the primal elements of nature. From prayer candles to the Olympic Torch to memorial flames, fire carries with it a profound meaning to this day.

Yet despite its practical applications and life-giving properties, a multitude of disasters throughout history, from the Great Fire of Rome to the bombings of World War II, have been caused by the use of fire. For example, in 1963, four African-American girls died when their church was burned in Birmingham. And several of the worst forest fires in recent history, causing considerable damage to the environment and property, as well as loss of lives, were caused by arson.

The deliberate destruction of culturally symbolic objects through fire, such as the burning of draft cards or a country’s flag, carries special significance. The burning of books represents a wanton desecration of knowledge, and constitutes the worst form of censorship.

Another historic use of fire as a political instrument is the act of self-immolation. On June 11, 1963, Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist monk, set himself on fire in protest. The image of his suicide garnered worldwide attention and triggered a crisis in Vietnam. On January 4, 2011, Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, distraught over harassment by government officials, burned himself alive. This act is widely regarded as an impetus for the subsequent Tunisian Revolution and the ensuing Arab Spring movement in general.

Who Burns Books?

There’s a rich pathology of motivations in what drives groups and individuals to burn books. These factors may be loosely divided in to the following categories:

Vandals

Some book burnings are simply malicious acts of arson. Examples include the pillaging of medieval monasteries by the Vikings, or the vindictive French revolutionaries that set fires to opulent private libraries. The United States Library of Congress was also burned to the ground by the British during the War of 1812.

Burning book

Censors and Bigots

As long as there have been materials deemed lewd or blasphemous, there have been attempts to ban them. Those burning books as an act of censorship on ideological grounds often display religious intolerance, such as that exhibited during the Spanish Inquisition or the reign of the Taliban.

Anti-Intellectuals

Tyrants throughout history—from Imperial China to Stalin to the Khmer Rouge to Castro—have attempted to preemptively quell sedition by eliminating subversive texts from the population. Such books have even proved fatal to their authors. The nationalism behind the Nazi book burnings is the most famous example of this.

You Cannot Destroy an Idea

Books are weapons in the war of ideas

Have you heard of Salman Rushdie? How about Hanif Kureishi? Both are acclaimed British authors, however Rushdie is much more of a household name thanks to the death sentence he received.

In modern times, and now thanks all the more so to the democratic spread of online communities and digital forms of information, efforts to burn books, aside from garnering attention for the censors, also generates free publicity of the “forbidden fruits” being challenged. This often has a boomerang effect on any attempts to quell their influence.

The backfiring of efforts to suppress information even has a name: the Streisand effect, named after Barbra Streisand, who attempted in vain to censor a photograph of her beachfront mansion. Originally taken for a relatively unknown government study on coastal erosion, the image became widely popular after Streisand’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the photographer.

Rock and Roll

Musical recordings of controversial artists have also been burned in recent history.

In 1966, The Beatles, having landed themselves in hot water over John Lennon’s infamous “we’re more popular than Jesus” remark, had their records burned by several groups in admonishment.

Jimi Hendrix

In 1982, a youth minister in North Carolina led a group in burning albums and cassettes of various popular artists, in an attempt to destroy the purported backward messages in “Satan’s records.”

In 2003, the Dixie Chicks had their albums burned by those offended by a member’s statement that “we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.”

Gallery of Burned Books

Click on the book covers for more information.

Quotations

If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics (works on religion and philosophy) let us ask this question, does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can be nothing but sophistry and illusion.
     — David Hume

Ugly hell, gape not! come not, Lucifer! I’ll burn my books - ah, Mephistopheles!
     — Doctor Faustus (Faust)

The Sermon of Saint Paul at Ephesus

A number who had practiced sorcery brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly. When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand drachmas. In this way the word of the Lord spread widely and grew in power.
     — Acts 19:19–20

The power that orders the burning of books admits that it governs not by reason and logic but by violence and mood.
     — The New York Times

Prepare the hecatomb you owe to truth, seize the torch, set up the state, and consign the rubbish of your philosophical libraries to the flames.
     — Charles Fourier

As good almost kill a man as kill a good book; who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.
     — John Milton

Even if they were true, ought certainly not to be lightly told to young and thoughtless persons; if possible, they had better be buried in silence... these tales must not be admitted into our State, whether they are supposed to have an allegorical meaning or not. For a young person cannot judge what is allegorical and what is literal.
     — Plato

Castro can destroy everything, except for books. He may censor, ban or even burn them, but the ideas contained in books can never be destroyed.
     — Carlos Franqui

We stand against the small tide of those who want to make everyone unhappy with conflicting theory and thought. We have our fingers in the dike.
     — Captain Beatty (Fahrenheit 451)

Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings.
     — Heinrich Heine

Book Burning Memorial

The era of extreme Jewish intellectualism is now at an end.... And thus you do well in this midnight hour to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past. This is a strong, great and symbolic deed - a deed which should document the following for the world to know - Here the intellectual foundation of the November Republic is sinking to the ground, but from this wreckage the phoenix of a new spirit will triumphantly rise.
     — Joseph Goebbels

Goose-stepping morons like yourself should try reading books instead of burning them.
     — Henry Jones, Sr. (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)

Burning of books and burying of scholars

Anyone who dares to discuss the Shi Jing or the Classic of History shall be publicly executed. Anyone who uses history to criticize the present shall have his family executed. Any official who sees the violations but fails to report them is equally guilty. Anyone who has failed to burn the books after thirty days of this announcement shall be subjected to tattooing and be sent to build the Great Wall.
     — Li Si

We should remove those [communist] books from the bookshelves.
     — Joseph McCarthy

The fire with which you threaten sacred letters will burn you in an act of justice!
     — Deacon Vicente

Some men just want to watch the world burn.
     — Alfred Pennyworth (The Dark Knight)

Harry Potter book burning

This makes one deride the stupidity of people who believe that today’s authority can destroy tomorrow’s memories. On the contrary, the repressions of genius increase its prestige. All that tyrannical conquerors and imitators of their brutalities, achieve is their own disrepute and their victims’ renown.
     — Publius Cornelius Tacitus

Burn all these accursed books—for he has a great number—that richly deserve to be burned like heretics.
     — The Niece (Don Quixote)

Books are sacred to free men for very good reasons. Wars have been fought against nations which hate books and burn them. If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.
     — Kurt Vonnegut

If you burn my books, I will burn your town.
     — Ulric von Hutten

Burn the libraries and disperse the families of the vile species of Intellectuals.
     — Curzio Malaparte

Bookseller burnt

We think we’ve come so far. Torture of heretics, burning of witches, is all ancient history. Then, before you can blink an eye, suddenly, it threatens to start all over again.
     — Jean-Luc Picard (Star Trek: The Next Generation)

Don’t join the book burners. Don’t think you are going to conceal faults by concealing evidence that they ever existed. Don’t be afraid to go in your library and read every book, as long as that document does not offend our own ideas of decency. That should be the only censorship.
     — Dwight D. Eisenhower

What about Banned Books?

In the United States, there is virtually no such thing, at least in terms of prior restraint (the government forbidding information from being published). Aside from a few very specific titles—such as a book advising people not to pay taxes, exposés by former CIA and military intelligence employees, and software cracks—publications in this country are not banned.

New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

Libraries do, however, routinely face objections to controversial materials that have been selected for their collections. This sometimes results in items being restricted, censored, or withdrawn from library shelves. One of the most challenged books of the past decade is And Tango Makes Three, a children’s book about two real male penguins that raised a penguin chick.

Treasures of Wisdom Forever Lost

How much human knowledge has been purged from our collective memory due to such deliberate destruction? How much ground in scientific and cultural advancement has been lost by the absence of this information?

The invention and widespread use of the printing press in the 1400s revolutionized the mass production of books and forever changed the democratization of knowledge throughout society. Prior to this time, books were transcribed by hand and usually only a precious few copies were made of each title. This made book burning, which could eradicate all versions of a work, an exceedingly efficient form of post-publication censorship.

The Ancient Library of Alexandria   Egyptian Scientific Institute

The Ancient Library of Alexandria, the largest collections of classical texts to have ever existed, was destroyed, possibly due to a fire set by Roman Legionnaires. More recently, the Iraq National Library and Archive was looted and burned during the 2003 invasion, and the Egyptian Scientific Institute was burned by protestors in 2011.

Book Burning in the Future

As recent examples demonstrate, there are still widespread efforts censor materials, and incidents of book burning continue to make headlines. For example, in December 2011, Taliban militants confiscated and burned cell phones and computers to prevent the spread of obscenity.

The printed word, as the predominate medium for information since the time of cuneiform tablets and ancient calligraphy, is facing challenges as well. The propagation of information over distributed networks has already heralded many wonderful advances for the development of ideas.

Yet digital forms of information may be just as vulnerable to tampering, especially if access is monopolized via a centralized authority. Some pundits even warn of a Digital Dark Ages, where knowledge is lost by technological obsolescence—and further restricted by oligarchies with newfound control over electronic forms of information.

Book burning comic

Regardless of formats that will be used in the future, libraries will remain committed to facilitating access to information.

Further Reading

Below is a selection of the primary source materials used to compile the information in this collection.

Books held by the UWM Libraries

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq by Fernando Báez.

Burning Books by Haig Bosmajian.

Burning Books by Matthew Fishburn.

Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction by Rebecca Knuth.

Websites

Fighting the Fires of Hate is an exhibit by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe: An exhibition of books which have survived Fire, the Sword and the Censors is an exhibit catalog from the University of Kansas.

Memory of the World: Lost Memory - Libraries and Archives destroyed in the Twentieth Century is a report prepared for UNESCO on behalf of IFLA.

Wikipedia: Book Burning includes a basic overview and a list of incidents.

For more information on book burning or researching any topic of interest, please Ask a Librarian.