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Book burning (also biblioclasm or libricide) is the practice of destroying books or other written material. In modern times, other forms of media, such as phonograph records, video tapes, and CDs have also been burned or shredded. Book burning is usually carried out in public, and is generally motivated by moral, religious, or political objections to the material.
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. In other cases, such as the Nazi book burnings, other copies of the destroyed books survive - but still, the instance of book burning becomes emblematic of a harsh and oppressive regime which is seeking to censor or silence an aspect of a nation's culture.
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.
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.
After the First Council of Nicea (CE 325), roman emperor Saint Constantine issued an edict against nontrinitarian Arians which included systematical book burning; "In addition, if any writing composed by Arius should be found, it should be handed over to the flames, so that not only will the wickedness of his teaching be obliterated, but nothing will be left even to remind anyone of him. And I hereby make a public order, that if someone should be discovered to have hidden a writing composed by Arius, and not to have immediately brought it forward and destroyed it by fire, his penalty shall be death. As soon as he is discovered in this offense, he shall be submitted for capital punishment....." According to 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'". Pagels cites Athanasius's Paschal letter (letter 39) for 367 AD, which prescribes a canon but does not explicitly order monks to destroy excluded works.[original research?] Heretical texts do not turn up as palimpsests, washed clean and overwritten, as do many texts of Classical antiquity; 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.
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.
Biblioclasm still occurs. All over the world schools and libraries have been destroyed in recent years. Despite the act of destroying books being condemned by the majority of society, people still participate on small and large scale.
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.
Kjell Ludvik Kvavik, a senior Norwegian official, had a penchant for removing maps and other pages from rare books and was noticed in January 1983 by a young college student. The student, Barbro Andenaes, reported the actions of the senior official to the superintendent of the reading room and then to the head librarian of the university library in Oslo. Hesitant to make public something that would greatly hurt the career of Kvavik even if the accusation proved false, media kept the name of the perpetrator quiet until his house was searched by police. The authorities seized 470 maps and prints as well as 112 books that Kvavik had illegally obtained. While this may not be the large scale, violent demonstration seen during wars, Kvavik's disregard for libraries and books shows that destruction of books on any scale can affect an entire country. Here, a senior official in the Norwegian government was disgraced and the University Library was refunded only a small portion of the costs it incurred from the loss and destruction of rare materials as well as the security changes that had to be made. In this case, the draw of personal profit and enhancing one's own collection was the cause of the defacement of rare books and maps. While the main goal was not destruction for destruction's sake, the resulting damage to the ephemera still carries weight within the library community.
The annihilation of the Bosnian National and University Library in August 1992 was led by Serbian nationalist Ratko Mladic. After firing incendiary shells on the library roof, Sarajevans attempted to save the books from the growing flames. As firefighters arrived to help, the nationalists began shooting bullets into the crowd, killing firefighters and cutting off supplies to stop the fire. As the onslaught continued, Bosnian soldiers continued their rescue efforts. The building burned. The Serbian nationalist purposefully targeted libraries and places of cultural significance in an effort to destroy the diverse history and Ottoman legacy within Bosnia. The nationalists laid waste to libraries, museums, and architectural treasures, and within just the National and University library, approximately 1.5 million volumes were lost, including almost 150,000 rare books.
South Africa in 1984. Amsterdam's South African Institute was infiltrated by an organized group bent on drawing attention to the inequality of the apartheid. Well-organized and ensuring patrons of the library that no harm would come to them, group members systematically smashed microfiche machines and threw books into the nearby waterway. Indiscriminate of the content being destroyed, shelf after shelf was cleared of its contents until the group left. Staff members fished books from the water in hopes of salvaging the rare editions of travel books, documents about the Boer Wars, and contemporary materials both for and against apartheid. Many were destroyed by oil, ink, and paint that the anti-apartheid demonstrators had flung around the library. The world was outraged at the loss of knowledge that these demonstrators had caused, and instead of winning support and getting attention on the issue of apartheid, the international audience cried out against the actions at the Amsterdam's South African Institute. Some demonstrators came forward to explain that they believed the institute was pro-apartheid and that nothing was being done to change the status quo in South Africa.
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.
In 1973, during the years of the Chilean fascist dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, hundreds of books were burned as a way of repression and censorship.
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.
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.
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.
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." 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.
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.