Book burning

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Book burning (also biblioclasm or libricide) is the practice of destroying, often ceremonially, books or other written material. In modern times, other forms of media, such as phonograph records, video tapes, and CDs have also been ceremoniously burned or shredded. Book burning is usually carried out in public, and is generally motivated by moral, religious, or political objections to the material.

Book burning can be emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence an aspect of a nation's culture. In some cases the works destroyed are irreplaceable and their burning constitutes a severe loss to cultural heritage. Examples include obliteration of the Library of Baghdad, the burning of books and burying of scholars under China's Qin Dynasty, the destruction of Aztec codices by Itzcoatl, and the Nazi book burnings.

Book burning can be an act of contempt for the book's contents or author, and the act is intended to draw wider public attention to this opinion. Examples include the burning of Wilhelm Reich's books by the FDA and the 2010 Qur'an-burning controversy.

Art destruction is related to book burning, both because it might have similar cultural, religious or political connotations and because in various historical cases books and artworks were destroyed at the same time.

Historical background[edit]

In 1933, Nazis burned works of Jewish authors, and other works considered "un-German", at the library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft in Berlin.

From the 7th Century BC when Jehoiakim, King of Judah, burned part of the prophet Jeremiah's scroll, (Jeremiah 36), to the present day, the burning of books has a long history as a tool wielded by authorities both secular and religious, in efforts to suppress dissenting or heretical views that are perceived as posing a threat to the prevailing order.

According to scholar Elaine Pagels, "In AD 367, Athanasius, the zealous bishop of Alexandria... issued an Easter letter in which he demanded that Egyptian monks destroy all such unacceptable writings, except for those he specifically listed as 'acceptable' even 'canonical' — a list that constitutes the present 'New Testament'".[citation needed] Although Pagels cites Athanasius's Paschal letter (letter 39) for 367 AD, there is no order for monks to destroy heretical works contained in that letter.[1] Thus, heretical texts do not turn up as palimpsests, washed clean and overwritten, as pagan ones do; many early Christian texts have been as thoroughly "lost" as if they had been publicly burnt.

According to the Chronicle of Fredegar, Recared, King of the Wisigoths (reigned 586–601) and first Catholic king of Spain, following his conversion to Catholicism in 587, ordered that all Arian books should be collected and burned; and all the books of Arian theology were reduced to ashes, with the house in which they had been purposely collected.[2][3]

Nalanda, an ancient center of higher learning in Bihar, India was sacked by Turkic Muslim invaders under Bakhtiyar Khalji in 1193. The great library of Nalanda University was so vast that it is reported to have burned for three months after the invaders set fire to it, sacked and destroyed the monasteries, and drove the monks from the site.[citation needed]

In his 1821 play, Almansor, the German writer Heinrich Heine — referring to the burning of the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, during the Spanish Inquisition — wrote, "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." ("Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.") Over a century later, Heine's own books were among the thousands of volumes that were torched by the Nazis in Berlin's Opernplatz.[4]

Anthony Comstock's New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1873, inscribed book burning on its seal, as a worthy goal to be achieved. Comstock's total accomplishment in a long and influential career is estimated to have been the destruction of some 15 tons of books, 284,000 pounds of plates for printing such 'objectionable' books, and nearly 4,000,000 pictures. All of this material was defined as "lewd" by Comstock's very broad definition of the term — which he and his associates successfully lobbied the United States Congress to incorporate in the Comstock Law.[citation needed]

In Azerbaijan, when a modified Latin alphabet was adopted, books published in Arabic script were burned, especially in the late 1920s and 1930s.[5] The texts were not limited to the Quran; medical and historical manuscripts were also destroyed.[6]

Book burning in Chile following the 1973 coup that installed the Pinochet regime in Chile.
Copies of books which were burned by the Nazis, on display at Yad Vashem

Book burnings were organised regularly in Nazi Germany in the 1930s by stormtroopers to destroy degenerate works, especially by Jewish authors such as Thomas Mann, Karl Marx and Albert Einstein.

In the 1950s over six tons of books by William Reich were burned in the U.S. under judicial orders.[7]

The advent of the digital age has resulted in an immense collection of written work being catalogued exclusively or primarily in digital form. The intentional deletion or removal of these works has been often referred to as a new form of book burning.[citation needed]

Some supporters have celebrated book burning cases in art and other media. Such is the bas-relief by Giovanni Battista Maini of The Burning of Heretical Books over a side door on the façade of Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, which depicts the burning of 'heretical' books as a triumph of righteousness.[8]

Notable book burnings and destruction of libraries[edit]

Burnings by authors[edit]

In 1588, the exiled English Catholic William Cardinal Allen wrote "An Admonition to the Nobility and People of England", a work sharply attacking Queen Elizabeth I. It was to be published in Spanish-occupied England in the event of the Spanish Armada succeeding in its invasion. Upon the defeat of the Armada, Allen carefully consigned his publication to the fire, and we only know of it through one of Elizabeth's spies, who had stolen a copy.[9]

The Hassidic Rabbi Nachman of Breslov is reported to have written a book which he himself burned in 1808. To this day, his followers mourn "The Burned Book" and seek in their Rabbi's surviving writings for clues as to what the lost volume contained and why it was destroyed.[10]

Carlo Goldoni is known to have burned his first play, a tragedy called Amalasunta, when encountering unfavorable criticism.

Joe Shuster, who together with Jerry Siegel created the fictional superhero Superman, in 1938 burned the first Superman story when under the impression that it would not find a publisher.[citation needed]

Books saved from burning[edit]

Symbol of the "New York Society for the Suppression of Vice", advocating book-burning

When Virgil died, he left instructions that his manuscript of the Aeneid was to be burnt, as it was a draft version with uncorrected faults and not a final version for release. However, this instruction was ignored.

In Catholic hagiography, Saint Vincent of Saragossa is mentioned as having been offered his life on condition that he consign Scripture to the fire; he refused and was martyred. He is often depicted holding the book which he protected with his life.

Before his death, Franz Kafka wrote to his friend and literary executor Max Brod: "Dearest Max, my last request: Everything I leave behind me... in the way of diaries, manuscripts, letters (my own and others'), sketches, and so on, [is] to be burned unread."[11] Brod overrode Kafka's wishes, believing that Kafka had given these directions to him, specifically, because Kafka knew he would not honour them – Brod had told him as much. Had Brod carried out Kafka's instructions, virtually the whole of Kafka's work – except for a few short stories published in his lifetime – would have been lost forever. Most critics, at the time and up to the present, justify Brod's decision.

A similar case concerns the noted American poet Emily Dickinson, who died in 1890 and left to her sister Lavinia the instruction of burning all her papers. Lavinia Dickinson did burn almost all of her sister's correspondences, but interpreted the will as not including the forty notebooks and loose sheets, all filled with almost 1800 poems; these Lavinia saved and began to publish the poems that year. Had Lavinia Dickinson been more strict in carrying out her sister's will, all but a small handful of Emily Dickinson's poetic work would have been lost.[12][13]

At the beginning of the Battle of Monte Cassino in the Second World War, two German officers—Viennese-born Lt.Col. Julius Schlegel (a Roman Catholic), and Captain Maximilian Becker (a Protestant)—had the foresight to transfer the Monte Cassino archives to the Vatican. Otherwise the archives – containing a vast number of documents relating to the 1500-years' history of the Abbey as well as some 1400 irreplaceable manuscript codices, chiefly patristic and historical – would have been destroyed in the Allied air bombing which almost completely destroyed the Abbey shortly afterwards. Also saved by the two officers' prompt action were the collections of the Keats-Shelley Memorial House in Rome which had been sent to the Abbey for safety in December 1942.

In France in the 1940s a group of anti-fascist exiles made a Library of Burned Books of all the books that Adolf Hitler had destroyed. This library contained copies of titles that were burned. These book burnings from the Nazis was an idea to help cleanse German culture of Jewish and foreign influences such as pacifist and decadent literature. The Nazis were going to make a "museum" of Judaism once the final solution was complete to house certain books that were saved by the Nazis themselves.[14]

Sikh book burning[edit]

In the Sikh religion, any copies of their sacred book Guru Granth Sahib which are too badly damaged to be used, and any printer's waste which bears any of its text, are cremated. Such a cremation is called Agan Bhet, and is similar to that performed when cremating a deceased Sikh.[15][16][17][18]

In literature[edit]

Film and television[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "NPNF2-04. Athanasius: Select Works and Letters". Ccel.org. 13 July 2005. Retrieved 21 January 2012. 
  2. ^ Duncan McMillan, Wolfgang van Emden, Philip E. Bennett, Alexander Kerr, Société Rencesvals, Guillaume d'Orange and the chanson de geste: essays presented to Duncan McMillan in celebration of his seventieth birthday by his friends and colleagues of the Société Rencesvals, University of Reading, 1984.
  3. ^ Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776–89.
  4. ^ Henley, Jon (10 September 2010). "Book-burning: fanning the flames of hatred". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 December 2012. 
  5. ^ Aziza Jafarzade, "Memoirs of 1937: Burning Our Books, The Arabic Script Goes Up in Flames," in Azerbaijan International, Vol. 14:1 (Spring 2006), pp. 24-25.
  6. ^ Asaf Rustamov, "The Day They Burned Our Books," in Azerbaijan International, Vol. 7:3 (Autumn 1999), pp. 74-75.
  7. ^ Reich, Wilhelm (1897-1957), International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis
  8. ^ Noted in Touring Club Italiano, Roma e Dintorni 1965:344.
  9. ^ Catholic encyclopedia, "Spanish Armada".
  10. ^ "עכותור - מדריכי טיולים לעיר עכו ולכל הארץ | מדריך טיולים | מסלולי טיול לקבוצות עברית + צרפתית". Acco-tour.50webs.com. Retrieved 21 January 2012. 
  11. ^ Quoted in Publisher's Note to The Castle, Schocken Books.
  12. ^ Habegger, Alfred (2001). My Wars Are Laid Away in Books: The Life of Emily Dickinson. p. 604. 
  13. ^ Farr (ed.), Judith (1996). Emily Dickinson: A Collection of Critical Essays. Prentice Hall International Paperback Editions. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-13-033524-1. 
  14. ^ Lyons, Martyn (2011). Books:A Living History. Los Angeles: J.Paul Getty Museum. pp. 200–201. ISBN 9781606060834. 
  15. ^ "Presss Release BC Sikh Community" (PDF). Harjas.com. 
  16. ^ "4 copies damaged in New Orleans by the flood caused by Hurricane Katrina". Sikhnn.com. 
  17. ^ "on the Nicobar Islands after the 2004 tsunami (end of page)". unitedsikhs.org. 
  18. ^ "Blog query about an accumulation of download printouts of Sikh sacred text". Mrsikhnet.com. 

External links[edit]