Books on Fire

Yesterday mScreen Shot 2016-02-24 at 4.43.28 PMarked the eightieth anniversary of the ‘bucherverbrennung’. Over twenty five thousand volumes of Jewish, communist and pacifist authors’ work was consigned to the flames amidst cheering crowds of students across towns and cities in Nazi Germany. Less than six months after Hitler’s rise to power, their belief in the rightness of their cause is self-evident. Book burning isn’t exactly a feature of modern times, however. Throughout history there have been over one hundred and twenty documented cases of mass burnings, sometimes along with their authors, from the destruction of Ebla in 2240 BCE to the burning of the Timbuktu Manuscripts by Islamist fighters loyal to Al Qaeda in January of this year. Burning a book makes statements. First, it validates and encourages indiscriminate vandalism. Objects that you don’t like, it’s OK to just destroy. Second, it is a clumsy, elephantine strategy to attempt to expunge inconvenient history. Finally and most subversively, it suggests that the destruction of the article itself wipes out the thoughts and opinions it contains. An online post from a supporter of the destruction in Mali wrote: “This is not knowledge we wish to keep. This is not knowledge. This is baggage. We wish you in the west to understand that we no longer carry your baggage.”Nineteen centuries earlier, the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian zealots thus: “But when what is complete comes, then what is incomplete will be done away with.” (1 Cor 13:10). I hardly think that he had in mind the obliteration of the Old Testament.

In modern Iran, the current regime’s book burnings and censorship are clearly aimed at stamping out ideas of freedom from repression and also a more nefarious purpose in a line with the early Muslim invaders of suppressing the pre-Islamic culture and values of that civilisation. Only a few years after the advent of Islam in Arabia, Muslim invaders galloped through foreign territories bringing darkness and oblivion with them. They overthrew a great Persian civilisation including destroying many libraries because books were regarded as the symbols of knowledge and wisdom which under the new Islamic system were simply not required and it paved the way for fourteen centuries of darkness in the Islamic world. The pre-Islamic great library of Ctesiphon in Iran was destroyed during the Muslim conquest in 637. Under the caliphate of Umar Al Faruq, which ironically means ‘the one who distinguishes right from wrong’, it was the first Islamic book burning. If the books contradict the Qur’an, they are blasphemous. On the other hand, if they are in agreement, they are not needed, as for us Qur’an is sufficient.” Such was the caliph Umar’s command to Saad ibn, the commander of Muslim troops. So, the huge library was destroyed and the books, the product of generations of Persian scientists and scholars, were thrown into the fire or into the river Euphrates.

Christianity has a longer history of defending an all-powerful deity by shielding the mind from strange ideas; there seemed to be a conjoint in mediaeval minds that the author of a heretical book and the ideas within it could be simultaneously dealt with; their solution being to consign the heretic together with his blasphemies to the purifying flames. The Dark Ages in Europe were full of religious atrocity, many thinkers and scientists were burnt with their ideas together with their books. Bigoted ecclesiasticism dammed the flow of free thought, blocking the seepage of knowledge within Western societies. Books were branded as magical and treasonous, and the writer or indeed the reader was punished by torture or death. 1550 to 1600 seemed quite the years for burnings. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake in 1600 allegedly for defending Copernicus’ heliocentric theories, but more probably for a number of real or manufactured heresies, including the revolutionary and blasphemous assertion that the stars were in fact suns just like our own.  Fifty years earlier, John Rogers, a  Bible translator and convert to Protestantism refused to recant his ‘aversion to Popish superstition and idolatry’ and was burned under Bloody Mary’s purge.

Libraries are like the Internet. Most of the contents are narrow, irrelevant, factually flawed, bigoted and incorrect. The remainder is gold, refined in the intellectual furnace of reason and in some cases, touched by the finger of God. We are all data miners at heart. Conjecture, hypothesis, blind alleyways and mistakes are all part of our DNA. Our habitual error is to assume that our own sets of assumptions are unique, therefore unassailably right and by a strange, incongruous leap of logic, thereby giving imprimatur to the erasure of all else. I once thought that the destruction of a book was almost morally equivalent to an abortion, since because that which comes into being – either a newborn idea or a foetus – may be expensive and inconvenient, it’s extinction is justified. But, this is not so since a book has a life of its own outside of its corporeal presence and the ideas it contains are contagious.

A preacher I once heard made a remark which stayed with me. “We’re all just stumbling around in the twilight, most of the time.” Once in a while, a lightning flash illuminates the entire sky and for a split second we see and understand everything clearly. Thereafter, we spend the rest of our lives trying to remember what we thought we once knew.