Burning Books and Other Shameful Acts

Burning books is a shameful act.  It is a shameful act within an arc of shameful acts which we must resist.

Here are some examples of shameful acts within that arc: Banning books. Throwing away books. Burning books. Fatwas on authors. Assaults on authors. Injuring – or killing – authors.

Burning or destroying cultural treasures and literatures predates the invention of the Gutenberg Press. With the advent of the Gutenberg Press (1440 on), printing books and burning books on a large scale became two possibilities that we have lived with ever since.

In 1492, with the Reconquista complete in Spain, Islamic texts – except for those on mathematics – were burned. The forced conversion, exile, or murder of Muslims in Spain was followed by the exile of Jewish people from Spain. Spain soon became a global empire with its “discovery” and colonization of the New World. However, it was an inward-looking, hyper-religious power with arguably the seeds of its destruction present (perhaps all empires have seeds of destruction present). The Spanish colonizers of the New World destroyed indigenous “book-like” texts. Much of what we know of pre-contact Central America was preserved by Bartolome de las Casas (circa 1484 to July 18, 1566) from surviving indigenous texts. De las Casas was a Dominican Priest, author, and defender of indigenous peoples of the New World. His Historia de las Indias was first published in 1875. [Wikipedia, accessed September 4, 2010].

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) is a classic novel with a significant theme and treatment of burning books. In the novel, firemen set fires and destroy libraries and books. The resistance to burning books is composed of people who resist by each learning one text by rote. Essentially, each person personifies a book until the laws prohibiting books are abolished.

When I read NPR’s report of Dove World Outreach Center (Gainesville, Florida) and its plan to burn copies of the Quran (also, Qur’an or Koran) on September 11, 2010 to mark the 9th  anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I winced and fought off a physical reaction of repugnance. Link to report:


This is a terrible idea. It is hateful and incendiary. Just a reminder: innocent Muslims died on the day of the 9/11 attacks also.

I support the Indonesians in their call upon American officials to stop this planned action of burning Islam’s holy book.

Alas, burning books is not new. Is it possible that burning books takes place, even in 2010?

Another shameful act is banning books. In the United States, communities and school systems have challenged or banned books for various reasons.

“Banned Books Week” (BBW) is scheduled for September 25 to October 2, 2010. Please support this observance. A discussion of BBW is on the American Library Association’s website. Link:


Navigate through the ALA website for a list of 100 top novels which have been challenged and/or banned (and in a few places, including Nazi Germany and the United States, burned). To Kill a Mockingbird, The Grapes of Wrath, The Color Purple, 1984, and Animal Farm are books on this list.

I believe that another shameful act is that of throwing books away. For a marvelous story about saving books from destruction, read Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books, by Aaron Lansky (2005). Lansky, founder and president of the National Yiddish Book Center, literally saved millions of books in Yiddish – and many of these were in dumpsters, thrown away. I recommend Lansky’s book Outwitting History highly.


And, in a chilling commentary, a profound connection made between burning books, violence, and genocide:

“Where they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings.” ~ Heinrich Heine (December 11, 1797 to February 17, 1856)

[Source for quotation: personal knowledge, and verified through use of BrainyQuotes.com, accessed September 4, 2010].

When I watched “The Book of Eli” (a surprisingly good film) recently, I was moved by the final scenes of the movie. A close up of some of the titles being re-printed – and preserved – on Alcatraz Island included the Holy Bible, the Torah, and the Koran. On the same shelf, next to each other!

When will we begin to respect and honor all holy books – books of all faiths?

When will we respect and honor all books as holy? Even a “bad or poorly written book” represents an attempt at storytelling or being part of an ongoing conversation. All books – all literatures – matter.

About Andrew Shattuck McBride

I am a writer, editor, writing coach, and consultant. I work in a variety of genres, including poetry, short stories, and creative non-fiction. I also have a couple of novels simmering on back burners. THANK YOU to Nan Macy of Village Books for taking this photo (June 2011).
This entry was posted in Activism, Authors, Books, Can We Talk?, Notes on the Literary Life. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Burning Books and Other Shameful Acts

  1. Well said, Andy!!
    Write on!

  2. Thanks Carolyn.

    You don’t think I’m being incendiary here?

    I sent you something (good, I hope).

    Blessings, Andy

  3. Dan Kleinman says:

    The ALA’s BBW is also known as “National Hogwash Week” as no books have been banned in the USA for about half a century.

    Further, the ALA itself excuses book burning when that burning is done for political reasons the ALA supports.

    Otherwise, great post.

    • Hello Dan Kleinman, thank you for your comment.

      I’d like to point out that there have been book bannings in the U.S. within the past 50 years; these have tended to be short-lived due to being overturned. There have been many, many more challenges.

      I read portions of your website on the ALA. I’ll have to do more research.

      Best wishes, Andy

      • Dan Kleinman says:

        I can ask for nothing more than an open mind. Thank you.

        As former ALA Councilor Jessamyn West said:

        It also highlights the thing we know about Banned Books Week that we don’t talk about much — the bulk of these books are challenged by parents for being age-inappropriate for children. While I think this is still a formidable thing for librarians to deal with, it’s totally different from people trying to block a book from being sold at all.

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