Celebrating Australian Reading Hour with a short history of forbidden reading

An extract from Reading: A Very Short Introduction by Belinda Jack

Censorship, book burnings, and secret reading highlight the relationship between reading and power, and hence the relationship between limiting access to reading and political control. But from the very beginning there have been dissidents who refused to give up the intellectual freedom provided by their reading in the face of despotic regimes. Ovid provides an early example. Later, when Christianity became the state religion in Rome, Emperor Constantine tried Arius and the Council of Nicaea banned his doctrine and ordered that the Arian ‘sect’s’ books be burned. The Nazis famously burnt books. The novelist E. M. Forster, in one of his anti-Nazi broadcasts of 1940, used book burnings in Berlin as symptomatic of their whole enterprise. Of these he said, ‘The Nazis wished it to symbolise their cultural outlook, and it will. It took place on May 13 (sic), 1933. That night twenty-five thousand volumes were destroyed outside the University of Berlin, in the presence of some forty thousand people. Most people enjoy a blaze and we are told that the applause was tremendous’.

An ironic editorial in the New York Times, in April 1941, also made book burning central to its argument. It is worth quoting at length because it is also a catalogue of book destruction through history:

“And yet, despite the fine record of the German war machine in destroying other people’s libraries, it cannot hope to compete, for permanent results, with earlier achievements in the same field. When the Arabs destroyed the Alexandrian Library or, before that, when the goths and the vandals sacked the cultural centres of the Roman Empire, the lost treasures were permanently lost. To replace the lost books at Louvain or Warsaw is merely a question of money to buy new copies.

The art of printing stands in the way of Hitler’s plans for the human spirit. The books thrown on Nazi bonfires soon after Hitler’s arrival in power were only a symbolic gesture. There were plenty of copies outside of Germany, or for that matter hidden away in the Third Reich. Hitler’s only hope of uprooting anti-Nazi culture must be by conditioning the minds of the subjugated peoples so as to immunise them against the printed word. His serfs must be completely sterilized against the impact of dangerous thoughts, as his Axis friends in Tokyo call them.”

Book burnings were also a potent form of protest against the cultural impositions in the colonial world. Students at Farouk University in Alexandria (again) protested against British rule by burning English textbooks. And for some writers having had his or her book burned is a badge of honour, an accolade that proves the writer’s desire to resist oppression. The same is sometimes true of having been the subject of an inquisitorial process. Muslims around the world burned copies of Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses. The Harry Potter books were burned in parts of the United States where fundamentalist Christians claimed that they would encourage witchcraft. Most recently, the young schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head, in effect because she read books and advocated girls’ literacy on a blog, in a Taliban-controlled part of Pakistan. Dissident book groups, often made up of women, have persistently read in parts of the world where oppressive regimes try to control women’s reading.

In the mid-17th century, during the English Civil War, the 20th-centruy Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges reminds us, it was seriously suggested that the entire contents of the archive of the Tower of London be burned, so that every memory of the past be obliterated, in order that a whole new way of life should be initiated. The destruction of books by fire is the most dramatic and spectacular way of preventing certain reading materials from being read. During the Cultural Revolution in China, millions of rare books were allegedly pulped, rather than burnt, in order to be recycled to provide paper for the printing of Mao’s Little Red Book. This is a process of metamorphosis. Book burnings, on the other hand, are often public spectacles and bring about a total destruction with associations of ‘renewal’ and ‘cleansing’.

 The history of book burnings is probably as old as literacy itself. Library collections and their architecture were purposefully burnt in classical ties. In 221 BCE, there are records of a library being burnt in China. This was an attempt to destroy the Confucian classics. It failed because learned men had committed them to memory. The burning of the Library of Alexandria in 642 CE by the Caliph Omar may be apocryphal, but it has the status of a foundation myth of book burnings as a pragmatic, but equally symbolic, event. This is the story: after the fall of Alexandria, John the Grammarian, an unfrocked priest, sought an interview with the Caliph and asked for the unwanted books in the library. The Omar’s alleged response was this: ‘Touching the books you mention, if what is written in them agrees with the book of God, they are not required; if what is written in them disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.’ In some accounts the books were apparently used as fuel in the city’s bathhouses for months. In the Caliph’s eyes reading material was an unnecessary distraction from fundamental beliefs and should be done away with in one great pyre.

Repressive political regimes, and religious authorities, maverick leaders, and individuals, have all burned reading material. In early modern France book burning became a secular, rather than a religious, vogue. Voltaire’s books were burned in Paris and Geneva. From the mid-17th century until the late 18th century some 1,000 people were imprisoned in the Bastille because of their involvement in the book trade.

In England during the early 16th century crown-sanctioned book burnings were common and royal pyres continued to provide public spectacles well into the 17th century. Reformation theologians’ works were burned. Martin Luther’s works were set alight in London in 1521 and William Tyndale’s vernacular translation of the New Testament a few years later. Tyndale himself was condemned as a heretic by Henry VIII and was burnt at the stake in 1536. It was John Milton who famously made the connection between the destruction of reading material and the destruction of men, writing in his Areopagitica (1644) ‘as good almost kill a man as kill a good book’. Milton was opposed to all forms of censorship, arguing, as many have since, that a bad book may be no more than ‘dust and cinders’ but they should not be destroyed as they might ‘polish and brighten the armoury of truth’.

It is an irony that books do not actually burn very easily. As the 19th-century bibliophile John Burton Hill wrote, laconically:

“In the days when heretical books were burned, it was necessary to put them on large wooden stages, and after all the pains taken to demolish them, considerable readable masses were found in the embers; whence it was supposed that the devil, conversant in fire and its effects, gave them his special protection. In the end it was easier and cheaper to burn the heretics themselves than their books.”

In the 20th century book burnings have played a role in ethnic cleansing. In Serbia, in 1991 the Albanian language was banned as the language of education. In Kosovo, during the last decade of the 20th century, Albanian-language collections were systematically burned. Again the likening of the burning of books to the destruction of a people is obvious.

Reading is part of the A Very Short History series, which offers the perfect way to get ahead in a new subject quickly.

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