Notes on Book Burnings

January 4, 2017

 

In July of 2010, pastor Terry Jones of the Christian Dove World Outreach Center threatened to burn 200 Qurans on the anniversary of Sept. 11. Despite protests from around the world, pleas from world leaders, and the deaths of over 50 people, he ended up putting the book on trial and subsequently burning it. 

 

Although it was one Quran—one holy text that is revered by millions of people and even more of their ancestors—book burning is more symbolic than it is physical. Flames climbing their spines, dancing through their pages, destroying everything in the process. Fire consumes, and fire erases. Fires can erase culture. 

 

In 213 B.C., during the Qin Dynasty, Emperor Qin burned thousands of priceless books and buried over 1000 scholars alive. He then rewrote the history to glorify himself. The burning of Nalanda, a Buddhist monastery, in 1193 subsequently ended Buddhism as a major religion in India. During the Spanish Inquisition, books in Arabic and Hebrew were burned. Only three works remain of the Mayan codices after Spanish friars burned them in 1562. The Cornish language and culture almost disappeared because of the burning of Glasney College. 

 

China, Poland, Germany, Japan, France, the United Kingdom, and many other countries lost libraries and priceless books were destroyed and burned to the ground during World War II. All of this irreplaceable information was lost to the flame, along with some of the lives that wrote it. 

 

As Trump was elected, I thought about book burnings. Of course I thought about myself as a woman, and I also thought about my friends as documented and undocumented immigrants, women, queer people, people of color, etc. But in the end, my mind came back to book burnings. 

 

I specifically thought of this scene in Indiana Jones where the hero goes to Berlin. He sees books burned on a pile as Nazis walk around it in a circle. As the brave Indy snakes into the scene, German children throw books onto the fire. Although you cannot see the names of the books as they burn, I imagine my beloved Torah is in there, and other texts in Hebrew. I also imagine Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Helen Keller, and Thomas Mann are in there too—because in the real book burnings, they actually were. 

 

I also think of a scene in real life where I found Sherman Alexie’s book on the “banned bookshelf” of a local communist bookstore in Tucson. The books were donated from the school because Tucson had just eliminated the cultural studies program and books by Native American and Latinx authors were banned from the classroom. 

 

Censorship, more than just in the form of book burning, is a culturally destructive process. Although it is not the greatest threat, I worry about book burnings. I worry about my tiny library and the libraries of my friends, my beloved bookstores, and my national monuments. I worry that a Trump presidency will censor or in essence burn information sacred to people that aren’t like him, that aren’t white straight men. 

 

I worry about losing the words of David Sedaris, Zadie Smith, Claudia Rankine, Haruki Murakami, Toni Morrison, Sherman Alexie, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Gabriel García 

Márquez, and many, many more. Because they help readers of colors, women readers, and queer readers find representation in art, and also because they teach others about their experiences. They teach others how to be compassionate and kind. I worry and worry. 

 

As the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine wrote, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.”

 

 

 

Photo Credit: Cafe La Luna

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