Overview:

Book burning is an ancient way to keep new ideas out, however, it's still being done today, even in our advanced 21st century. Why?

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Since ancient times, people from almost all religions and societies have been burning books. As one scholar put it: “The goals of the book burners have been to extirpate history, to intimidate and stamp out opposition, to create solidarity, and to cleanse society of controversial ideas.”   

Not surprisingly, the act of book burning has been often followed by “the gruesome executions of heretics, scholars, and enemies of the state.” The stars of the show include the Catholic Church, Nazi Germany, and many of today’s Islamist fundamentalists.         

Where they burn books, in the end…they also burn people.

Heinrich Heine

The first book burner was the Ch’in Emperor of China (from the 3rd century BC), since some books recorded great deeds performed before his time, which of course he considered quite impossible. For good measure, he also buried their authors alive. 

In its day, the Library of Alexandria was said to contain all the knowledge of the world. In its history, the library had been burned down several times. Once, perhaps accidentally by Julius Caesar in 48BC, while battling enemies in the city. Again, in 392AD, by the Christian Patriarch of Alexandria, who considered it a pagan temple. And finally, in 642, by Caliph Omar, the successor to Mohammad.

Omar was reported to have said: “If the books of this library contain matters opposed to the Koran, they are bad and must be burned. If they contain only the doctrine of the Koran, burn them anyway, for they are superfluous.” Some 600 years later (in 1258), the caliphate’s capital of Baghdad was destroyed by the Mongols. With it went the House of Wisdom, containing the greatest library of the medieval world, and in its heyday drawing to it the foremost students of science: of optics and astronomy, chemistry and mathematics, zoology and geography. 

In whatever ways, books have always threatened the establishment. The Lollards, an English group trying to reform Christianity in the 14th century, faced murderous opposition from the clergy and other interested parties when they tried to translate the Bible into English. As one historian noted, this not only threatened the clerical monopoly on knowledge, it had clerics worried about losing their jobs. In the past, translation into the vernacular was first deemed ungodly. The common man, which meant almost everyone, did not have the ability to truly understand the message of the Bible:  they did not understand the pain and poverty that was the lot of all but the priests and the feudal lords, and later, the emerging merchant class.

And that unlikely conjunction of stars—the printing press and Martin Luther—both appearing in the 15th century, almost caused the walls of the Vatican to come tumbling own. In 1415, a papal bull prohibited Jews from owning, studying, or even reading, the Talmud. The 16th century intensified matters, with the onslaught of the printing press: to some, a gift from heaven; to others, a machine from hell. In the 1550s, Jewish books, as well as rare rabbinical manuscripts, were burned by the hundreds of thousands in Italian cities.

In the early 1600s, one Italian cardinal gloated that he had amassed 10,000 outlawed Jewish books and consigned them to the flames. No one even realized, that without the OT, there never would’ve been a New Testament. Remember: Paul was a Jew!

The Papal Index ran for a thousand years, though it was not officially established until the Council of Trent, in 1559. It was formally abolished in 1966. During that thousand-year period, its custodians burned anything that seemed to contradict the official Word of God; anything and everyone. A bookseller was burned at Avignon for selling Bibles in the French tongue. St. Dominic, the founder of the Inquisition, tested books for heresy with trial by fire.  It was not until 1992 that Pope John Paul II annulled Galileo’s conviction of heresy that the earth revolved around the sun. Since Galileo’s discovery was based on Copernicus’ book On the Revolutions of the Celestial Sphere, banned in 1616, the Pope had to overturn the other prohibition as well.        

With a slight time lag of almost 400 years, Timbuktu was founded in the twelfth century, by merchants plying the trans-Saharan Highway, that ran from West Africa north to the Mediterranean and NE to Cairo. With such exchanges, the city became a remarkably cosmopolitan and tolerant place. Like Florence in the same period, merchants of the 13th and 14th centuries spent a fair amount of their wealth, on manuscripts. For centuries, people gathered at mosques and private homes, to debate science, philosophy, and jurisprudence. In 2012, the Islamists overran the ancient city; destroying age-old shrines dedicated to venerated Muslim saints; the door of a 15th-century mosque, that people believed would not be opened till the day of judgment; and thousands of centuries-old books of learning: handwritten texts in Greek and Hebrew, but mostly Arabic, from every part the Mediterranean ecumenae: books from Fez to Cairo, and from Córdoba; then the greatest center of learning in the world.  

Still, it was not the books per se the Islamists resented, the libraries included many Korans and commentaries on them, but rather what they stood for: a tradition from the “golden age of literacy and learning,” as one commentator described it; “learned debates on astronomy, law, and theology,” and everything under the sun. These were the things they feared the most; the things that horrified them; that threatened to break open the cocoon they had wrapped themselves in, to save themselves from the poverty, the disease, and corruption that had grown up around them. With the coming of the Islamists, people hid their treasures of learning in tin boxes and camel-skin satchels; often burying them beneath the desert sands. As one observer described it: 

The secret evacuations began at night. Ancient books were packed in small metal shoe lockers and loaded three or four to a car, to reduce the danger to the driver. The manuscript traffickers passed through the checkpoints of their Islamist occupiers. Later, when the road was blocked, they transported their cargo down the Niger River by canoe.  

We like to think such mentalities are a part of the past. But they’re still with us today. And not just in faraway places. In 2001 the Christ Community Church in Alamogordo NM conducted a public burning of “satanic” Harry Potter books, along with ouija boards and rock music paraphernalia. Fortunately, the result was an outpouring of donations to the local public library, to purchase new copies. At this point, it seems only proper to welcome the Rev. Terry Jones, who held a public spectacle of burning Korans, in 2013. In his one claim to fame, the former hotel clerk was elevated to that Select Fraternity of book-burners that goes back some 2300 years to the Ch’in Emperor. And last but not least, the Nazi Kulturcorps, that fed to the flames all writings, and people, that were unAryan. We won’t even bother with Stalin’s Book-of-the-Month Club or Mao’s Little Red Bonfires. Welcome, Reverend Jones.                                   

Another modern counterpart to book-burning, or book banning, is: closing down internet portals like Google, Facebook, & Yahoo, which seems to be happening in China today. The Ch’in emperor would have been proud of you, Mister Xi, and your desire to follow in his footsteps. Though the Papal index has been disbanded, the malady lingers on. A 2016 article in Religion Dispatches reported that the Church is still a major owner of cinemas in Italy, more than 1000 of them. This includes most of the independent and arthouse theatres. This goes back to the days when every parish had its own theatre, remember the film Cinema Paradiso, and priests actually cut parts of the parts of a film they felt were not suitable for their parishioners. These theaters are now mostly rented out to independent operators, who are obliged to sign a contract, with a clause agreeing to abide by the bishops’ “suggestions.” A Papal Commission views every film released in the country, and might still recommend a film that is also marked “problematic.” And so might be best presented along with a discussion of the “problem” it deals with.  A recent example was the Oscar-winning film Spotlight, dealing with a clerical sex abuse scandal in Boston.

In all fairness, the Commission seldom “forbids” a film to be shown. But you know, new leases do come up regularly. One film they pulled was called “El Club,” whose main characters were all priests, including one who had a soft spot for little children. Now confess: Wouldn’t you secretly like to spend a few weeks in Rome; doing a bit of volunteer work as a censor? The attempted coup in Turkey in July 2016 has allowed the Sultan du jour, Recip Erdogan, to extinguish those lights…further and further. Actually, as far back as 2012, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Turkey had the worst record in the world, for jailing journalists. In 2016, that number rose to 1/3 of worldwide incarcerations. In 2014, it filed five times more requests to Twitter, for removing content, than any other country. 

Recently, a textbook was banned for using the letters “f” and “g” because they stood for the initials of Fethullah Gulen, the Pennsylvania-based preacher accused of plotting a coup. It’s probably only a matter of time before more and more books appear on the Ankara List of banned books. Such things, as we’ve seen, helped set Europe back almost 1000 years. It took Turkey a hundred years to raise itself out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire. What a tragedy if the lights went out again on the Bosphorus. It’s been rumored that Erdogan may also ban several foreign companies from operating in the country, including: the J.C. Penney retail chain because its first two initials stand for Jesus Christ; the German electronics firm Siemens, since it is a front for a group of nonbelievers dedicated to fecundating Muslim women with their semen. It is also considering a ban on Veal Marsala being served in the country, since its initials stand for the Virgin Mary.   

In the latest iteration, Turkey’s office of religious affairs recently declared that celebrating the new year, playing the lottery, feeding dogs at home, and purchasing bitcoin were against Islamic principles. As were men dyeing their mustaches, and couples holding hands. A further gloss on their website, that girls as young as nine could be married off, caused such a storm that the item was removed.                                   

The moral of the story: the world cannot become a better place if we stifle new ideas and kill the people who offer them. Think what things would be like if we based our cures and preventions (say, for epidemics) on 400-year-old medical practices. Most of us wouldn’t be around today. And those who were would be suffering from all the diseases and malformations we’ve been able to cure in the last 200 years.             

Steven Darian

"Steven Darian is a Professor Emeritus at Rutgers University. He has also taught at the U. of Penn & Columbia. He has lived and worked and studied in 9-10 countries; 3 of them, on Fulbrights He...