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.

comics

Catholic school students burn thousands of comic books in Binghamton, New York (1948).

Landscape

Books smolder in a huge bonfire as Germans give the Nazi salute (1933). But it’s not just Nazis that burn books.

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.

Each of the titles displayed here 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 (1480). A painting by Pedro Berruguete depicting Dominic, founder of the Inquisition, checking books for heresy with a trial by fire.

Saint Dominic and the Albigenses (1480). A painting by Pedro Berruguete depicting Dominic, founder of the Inquisition, checking books for heresy with a trial by fire.

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:

Image from Flickr (2007) of a bookseller’s use of unsold merchandise for kindling.

Image from Flickr (2007) of a bookseller’s use of unsold merchandise for kindling.

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.

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

Poster from World War II by the United States Office of War Information (1942).

Poster from World War II by the United States Office of War Information (1942).

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

jimi

Jimi Hendrix set fire to his Fender Stratocaster at the Monterey Pop Festival in June 1967. Fame and success followed.

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.

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

  • The Talmud. The Talmud is the primary text of Judaism. Various Kings and Popes instigated burnings of the Talmud throughout the Middle Ages.
  • The Koran. The Koran is the cornerstone of the Muslim religion. In an effort to standardize the text, early copies containing textual variations were burned. A copy of the Koran was also burned by pastor Terry Jones in his church on March 20, 2011. Although not widely covered by mainstream media, the burning was condemned by Afghan President Hamid Karzai. During the ensuing protests in Afghanistan, at least 30 people were killed. Among the dead were United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan employees, who were shot and decapitated.
  • The Bible. From the early Arabic and Hebrew versions to the time of Martin Luther (whose Bible was burned by order of the Pope in 1624) to a 2010 book burning of “Satan’s bibles like the NIV” (by the Amazing Grace Baptist Church in North Carolina), variations of the original King James version of the Bible, which is itself a translation of Greek and Latin texts, have been burned.
  • Union Now by Clarence Streit. At the height of the Red Scare, in June 1953, “undesirable” works such as this pro-globalism treatise were burned at the United States Information Service Libraries abroad.
  • Marxism by Henri Lefebvre. One of many titles destroyed with fire during the reign of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
  • Annie on My Mind by Nancy Garden. In 1994, copies of this book about a young lesbian couple were burned by protestors in Kansas City.
  • Famous Women by Giovanni Boccaccio. One of the many titles burned for obscenity at the “Bonfire of the Vanities” held at Florence in 1497. As a sign of the times, the priest responsible for the event was himself later excommunicated, tortured, and burned as a heretic.
  • The Impending Crisis of the South by Hinton Rowan Helper. This pro-abolitionist writing was banned and publicly burned in the Southern United States. Several men were also hanged for possessing the book.
  • Civilization and Its Discontents by Sigmund Freud. Freud, the Jewish father of psychoanalysis, also wrote extensively on society and religion. This title was included in the Nazi book burnings of the early 1930s.
  • Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler. German libraries were destroyed by the Allies as part of the denazification movement at the end of World War II. Restrictions on this title’s availability exist in Europe to this day.
  • Tropic of Capricorn by Henry Miller. Also once deemed obscene in the United States, this erotic tale was burned by court order in Turkey in 1989.
  • Studies in the Psychology of Sex by Havelock Ellis. This title was burned in England for its promotion of “wickedness, lewdness, and debauchery.”
  • The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie. The British author of this award-winning novel received a death sentence for blasphemy; Iranian Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwā against Salman Rushdie on February 14, 1989. The book was also burned in multiple protests in the United Kingdom. The Japanese translator of the book was murdered in 1991.
  • The School for Girls by Michel Millot. This early work of French erotic fiction was burned in Paris in 1655.
  • Letters on the English by Voltaire. Voltaire is famous for his provocative writings on government, society, and religion. This flattering commentary on the British was burned by order of the French Parliament. It was just one of many of his works to be censored in such a fashion.
  • Truth Held Forth by Thomas Mall. Several Quaker books and pamphlets were publicly burnt in the late 1600s, including this screed by a critic of the Salem witch trials. The author was also imprisoned and whipped.
  • The Analects by Confucius. To suppress dissent, Chinese Emperor Qin ordered scholars executed and alternative histories and other classical texts burned. Some remnants of Confucian thought, however, survived the purge. Over two thousand years later, such titles were burned again, this time during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
  • Shanghai Baby by Wei Hui. This novel was officially banned and publicly burned by Chinese officials for its portrayal of decadent and Western lifestyles.
  • The Social Contract by Jean-Jacques Rousseau. This well-known anti-monarchy treatise presents arguments for a democratic society. It was burned in cities throughout Europe.
  • Revolution and Counter-Revolution in Germany by Frederick Engels and Karl Marx. Another title included in the Nazi book burnings.
  • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by Joanne K. Rowling. With eerie echoes of the Salem witch trials, multiple congregations across the United States have taken to building bonfires from the popular Harry Potter series, due to its purported association with witchcraft and the occult.
  • Ulysses by James Joyce. This seminal work in modern literature was once banned for obscenity in the United States. During this time, postal officials seized and burned copies of the book. The ban was lifted in a landmark court decision in 1933.
  • The Green Book by Muammar Quaddafi. “These books must be burned,” stated Colonel Quaddafi, after seizing power in a military coup, speaking of Western and capitalist writings. Decades later, his own book of political philosophy was burned by Libyan revolutionaries, in protest and to purge the former dictator’s influence.
  • The Meritorious Price of Our Redemption by William Pynchon. Perhaps the first book to be banned in North America, this criticism of Puritanism was burned in the Boston market by court order in 1650.
  • Sunday no Sabbath by John Pocklington. In 1641, the public executioner burned this sermon in London by Parliamentary order.
  • Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut. In 1973, after being banned from the school, copies of this watershed anti-war novel were burned in a North Dakota school furnace. The book remains one of the most challenged and censored books in the United States.
  • The Iron Heel by Jack London. In this dystopian novel, the United States has become a totalitarian regime. For its pro-socialism themes, the title was included in the Nazi book burnings of the 1930s.

Quotations

The Sermon of Saint Paul at Ephesus (1649). This painting by Eustache Le Sueur depicts Paul’s conversion of Turkish sorcerers.

The Sermon of Saint Paul at Ephesus (1649). This painting by Eustache Le Sueur depicts Paul’s conversion of Turkish sorcerers.

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)

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

A monument of empty bookshelves in Berlin’s public square, made for the 20,000 books burned by Nazis on May 10, 1933.

A monument of empty bookshelves in Berlin’s public square, made for the 20,000 books burned by Nazis on May 10, 1933.

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

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

Depiction of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the Burning of books and burying of scholars.

Depiction of Emperor Qin Shi Huang and the Burning of books and burying of scholars.

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

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

A burning of “satanic” Harry Potter books, ouija boards, and rock music at the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico (2001). After the event, an outpouring of donations was made to the local public library, which used the funds to purchase additional copies.

A burning of “satanic” Harry Potter books, ouija boards, and rock music at the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo, New Mexico (2001). After the event, an outpouring of donations was made to the local public library, which used the funds to purchase additional copies.

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

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

“A Bookseller Burnt at Avignon in France, for selling Bibles in the French Tongue, with some of them tied round his Neck.”

“A Bookseller Burnt at Avignon in France, for selling Bibles in the French Tongue, with some of them tied round his Neck.”

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

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?

comstock

Insignia for the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded by Anthony Comstock in 1873 and disbanded in 1950. The group championed the banning and burning of literary works on moral grounds.

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.

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?

egypt

Damaged books from the Egyptian Scientific Institute fire in 2011. (photo by Mohammed Abed)

A depiction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, lost to the ages. (from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage)

A depiction of the Ancient Library of Alexandria, lost to the ages. (from Cosmos: A Personal Voyage)

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, 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.

xkcd

A comic about modern book burning. (from xkcd)

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

Websites

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