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 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.
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'". 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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
In Azerbaijan, when a modified Latin alphabet was adopted, books published in Arabic script were burned, especially in the late 1920s and 1930s. The texts were not limited to the Quran; medical and historical manuscripts were also destroyed.
In the 1950s over six tons of books by William Reich were burned in the U.S. under judicial orders.
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.
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.
Notable book burnings and destruction of libraries
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.
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 executorMax 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." 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.
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.
Sikh book burning
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.
A much-quoted line in Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is "manuscripts don't burn" (Russian: рукописи не горят). "The Master", a major protagonist in the book, is a writer who is plagued by both his own mental problems and the oppression of Stalin's regime in 1930s Moscow. He burns his treasured manuscript in an effort to hide it from the Soviet authorities and cleanse his own mind from the troubles the work has brought him. The character Woland (a mysterious magician who is, in fact, Satan) later gives the manuscript back to him, saying, "Didn't you know that manuscripts don't burn?" There is an autobiographical element reflected in the Master's character here, as Bulgakov in fact burned an early copy of The Master and Margarita for much the same reasons.
The first part of Don Quixote has a scene in which the priest and the housekeeper of the eponymous knight go through the chivalry books that have turned him mad. In a kind of auto de fe, they burn most of them. The comments of the priest express the literary tastes of the author, though he offers some sharp criticisms of Cervantes's works as well. It is notable that he saves Tirant lo Blanc.
At the conclusion of the novel "Auto da Fe" by Nobel-Prize winner Elias Canetti, the bibliophile protagonist immolates himself on a pile of his own library.
The Japanese novel Toshokan Sensou is about the conflict between two military organizations after the Japanese government passed a law that allows the censorship of any media deemed to be potentially harmful to Japanese society, including book burning.
The short story "Earth's Holocaust" from Nathaniel Hawthorne'sMosses from an Old Manse, is about a society that burns everything that it finds offensive, including its literature. Special attention is paid to The Bible as the last book burned:
"Upon the blazing heap of falsehood and worn-out truth--things that the earth had never needed, or had ceased to need, or had grown childishly weary of--fell the ponderous church Bible, the great old volume that had lain so long on the cushion of the pulpit, and whence the pastor's solemn voice had given holy utterance on so many a Sabbath day."
In Part II of the play Tamburlaine, by Christopher Marlowe, Tamburlaine (the protagonist) burns a copy of the Qur'an after having conquered Asia Minor and Egypt. His book-burning and declaration of independence from any deity leads to his fatal illness, and subsequently the end of the play.
Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian novel where books are outlawed and it is the job of a "fireman" to burn them. In the introduction of the 1967 Simon and Schusterbook club edition, Bradbury implies that the Nazi book burnings drove him to write the short story "The Fireman" which was the precursor along with the foundation for his novel Fahrenheit 451, stating, "It follows then that when Hitler burned a book I felt it as keenly, please forgive me, as his killing a human, for in the long sum of history they are one and the same flesh."
At the conclusion of Umberto Eco's "The Name of the Rose", the unique Medieval library which is at the center of the book's plot is burned and totally destroyed.
Iain Pears's book The Dream of Scipio is set in Provence, with the lives of three people at various historical periods interweaving with each other. Each of these lives includes an incident of book burning with a crucial importance. Manlius Hippomanes, a gallicaristocrat living in the time of the collapse of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, makes cynical use of Christianity for personal power and instills religious intolerance and antisemitism in his followers - and after his death, these followers set up a bonfire and burn Hippomanes' entire library of Classical works, believing themselves to be honoring his precepts. Olivier de Noyen, a poet and scholar active in the 14th Century Papal Court at Avignon, had to watch his father burning his beloved copy of Cicero - but then de Noyen re-wrote it from memory, and the incident determined him to devote his life to finding and preserving the books of antiquity. Julien Barneuve, an intellectual active during the Second World War, realizes the disastrous results of his collaboration with the pro-Nazi Vichy government and burns himself to death in a hut - starting the fire by burning his own manuscript of a work praising Hippomanes and condemning de Noyen.
In the future depicted in Brian Stableford's "The Halcyon Drift", one of the leading planets in the Galaxy is "New Alexandria", whose inhabitants are dedicated to the preservation and extension of knowledge, and are brought up to regard the destruction of books as the most heinous of deeds. Nevertheless, a protagonist agrees to help the Khor-Monsa, an alien species, in destroying books and records of their remote ancestors which were found in a drifting spaceship—since the books contained a shameful secret whose publication might have led to the present Khor-Monsa losing their social status and becoming targets of discrimination.
In Journey to the Center of the Earth the protagonist Axel suggests to his uncle, Professor Lindenbrock, that they should do more research on Arne Saknussemm and his works before attempting to duplicate Saknussemm's adventure into the center of the earth. Professor Lindenbrock tells Axel this is, regretfully, out of the question due to the fact that Saknussemm was out of favor with the leaders of his native country, who ordered all his books burned after his death.
In The Book Thief, the protagonist, Liesel, attends a Nazi book burning ceremony. While there, she finds a book that has survived the fire and smuggles it home.
Film and television
BBC Storyville: The Love of Books - A Sarajevo Story, is the documentary film of how a group of passionate intellectuals, professionals and book lovers risked their lives to save the Gazi Husrav-Beg Library from destruction during the siege of Sarajevo. This is a film about the importance of books, and how libraries are at the heart of cultural identity, being repositories for history and memory.
In one episode of Fullmetal Alchemist, in order to prevent Edward from getting information on the Philosopher's Stone, the homunculi burn down one section of the library.
In the Myst series of computer games and books, the only way to destroy the link to an Age is to destroy its Descriptive Book, usually by burning it.
In the film Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana Jones journeys to Berlin in order to retrieve his father's journal, which gives information about finding the Holy Grail. He retrieves it during a Nazi book burning rally (although it was not targeted for burning itself), where it is inadvertently signed by Hitler himself.
In the Red Dwarf episode "Marooned", Lister burns Rimmer's collection of books to heat Starbug. Rimmer initially protests, saying "A book is a thing of beauty. The voice of freedom, the essence of civilisation." Lister counters, "Biggles Learns To Fly?"
In the film Pleasantville, the people who are still black-and-white burn all the books in the library to keep people from becoming colored.
The Crusade episode "The Needs of Earth" depicts a world that has burned its entire cultural heritage — all art, music, and literature — and hunts the person who has the last remaining copies.
In a key scene of the film "Der alte und der junge König"(The Old and the Young King), a German Historical film made under Nazi rule in 1935, King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia is shown throwing into an open fire the beloved French-language books of his son, Crown Prince Friedrich (the future Friedrich II), as well as the Prince's flute. The film - banned after the fall of the Nazis as a piece of propaganda making manipulative use of history - presents this book burning as a positive and necessary act, which was needed in order to "educate" and "toughen up" the young prince, so as to "prepare him for becoming a great ruler".
^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.