The Temperature At Which Books Burn

As a student in public school, like many students before me and since me, I had to read a short novel by Ray Bradbury called Fahrenheit 451, where the main character was a fireman devoted to burning books.  Unsurprisingly enough, his familiarity with books leads him to read books and be changed by them instead of merely destroying them, which has rather drastic consequences for himself and those around him.  As someone who has spent a great deal of my own life devoted to writing, one might think that I would be implacably hostile to the destruction of writings, but as is the case with much in my life, my relationship to the destruction of writings is far more complicated than a simple reflective hostility.  It is not the destruction of writing, but who is destroying whose writings, and for what reason, that requires some understanding before I take a stand on how I feel about such matters on a case by case by case, and even here my feelings are often complicated.

On this day in 1981, not long before I was born, there was a massive and public destruction of a public library in Jaffna, Sri Lanka [1].  Included among the people destroying the world-class library were police officers and paramilitary supporting the Sri Lankan government.  Why would public officials destroy a public library that had been started by a mayor some decades before?  As it happened, the library itself was dedicated to Tamil-language literature and the mob was Sinhalese.  It was the fact that the library honored a language spoken by those who the Sinhalese were hostile to that made it a target for destruction.  There was little concern that it would be hypocritical in the extreme for those who are public servants to destroy a part of the public infrastructure of knowledge dedicated to encourage familiarity with literature within the general population of an area.  What mattered is that those who wrote the books and read the books were not the sort of people that these thugs wanted within their country.  If it was necessary for people to betray their trust to the general population, it mattered little, because the people being deprived of books were not considered part of the public that was worth protecting and defending.

The implications of this are immense.  I would like to look at two implications of this, which take us in very different directions.  First, I would like to comment on the problem of who is defined as part of a people.  Sri Lanka, an island nation of the coast of India, as had as the source of much of its difficulty as an independent nation the bitter divide between its two main constituent peoples, who are divided by language and religion and by the legacies of imperialism and post-colonial wrongs.  Although only three fourths of the country are Sinhalese, and most of the rest are either Sri Lankan Tamils, Moors, or Indian Tamils, there is a widespread effort at denying the legitimacy of these minority peoples to their own culture.  This is a common temptation whenever identity becomes a matter of ethnicity.  Where there is no genuine community between people in terms of their language and culture, and where people start viewing other communities themselves as enemies rather than neighbors, then the activity of police and other authorities can often be viewed from a point of view of antagonism.  People feel, whether justly or not, that the protection and defense of the authorities is for other people and not for them [2].

Having waded into the shallow end of a very deep pool concerning the question of the legitimacy of authorities with regards to who they view as worthy of defense and protection, let us spend a bit more time looking at my ambivalence concerning the destruction of writings as well, given that I am a prolific writer.  Why would someone whose writings spill into multiple volumes of material far too extensive for almost anyone to read have any sort of ambivalence at all when it came to the destruction of writing?  How is that not hypocritical?  As I mentioned earlier, there is a question of whose writings are destroyed by whom, and for what reason.  Clearly, the destruction of the Jaffna Public Library thirty six years ago is something I would deeply abhor, because many thousands of writings were destroyed by those who should have been protecting those works and the people who wrote and read those works.  The destruction of those works was an act of great violence by those who had made themselves into the enemies of those they should have served.  The evil of that behavior is very clear, unmistakably so.

It is not so clear in every kind of destruction of writings how we are to feel about it.  Not all acts of destruction carry with them the same price.  For example, the sister of the novelist Jane Austen destroyed many of her letters after her death.  I, and other people who would wish to know more about the vibrant and witty intellectual and emotional life of that writer, mourn the loss of much information.  Yet that destruction, and many like it, is not an act of violence.  It is, rather, an act of defense, namely the desire to protect reputation by consigning words written to the silence of the flames.  When people burn their own private letters or burn the letters they have received from others or hold in trust for others after the death of a writer, there are usually good reasons for it.  I know that I have, on at least a few occasions, written letters that caused a good deal of personal embarrassment and discomfort for myself and others.  I would not necessarily object to such writings being consigned to the ash pile, but I would prefer to be the one deciding it for myself.

The Bible, for example, gives one glorious count in the book of Acts of a voluntary book burning in the city of Ephesus where people who had converted to Christianity took their spellbooks and charms that had marked an allegiance to heathen faiths destroyed their own books in order to show their changed religious commitment.  This is the sort of book burning that I view as essentially unproblematic.  Books you own are books you can do what you want with them.  If you want to mark them up in a fashion to remember their better quotes, peruse them for future sources to acquire and read, repurpose them in whatever fashion you wish, or get rid of them, they are your own to get rid of.  There are certainly plenty of books that I have come across that did not really serve any higher purpose and even to be remembered and to take up space is probably more than they deserve.  Obviously, not all book burnings are of this kind, and it makes a bit difference whether someone is destroying their own worthless possessions or trying to destroy the store of knowledge available to others as an act of violence and hostility.  As is the case so often in life, it is not merely the act, but the context, that is of importance.


[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Temperature At Which Books Burn

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I’m really looking forward to the Kingdom when God’s absolute definition of pornography and His Divine rules of censorship will kick in when it comes to what published material will be spared the ash heap. 🙂

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