Why burn books?

Amal Chatterjee
10 min readJun 12, 2019

Source : Google photo of book burning in Germany during war

Synopsis : The intolerance of other ideas expressed in books has led to massive book burning in many countries under authoritarian rule. You will never know your past history if it is systematically erased by those who want to rewrite it. This practice of intolerance to new ideas and contrary views has now become outdated so those who practice it should be condemned.

There was a time long ago when people wrote on animal hides or palm leaves. Some made clay tablets to write on that were baked to preserve them. Thus we have found numerous clay tablets with Cuneiform inscriptions in the Middle East but they were bulky and difficult to move from place to place.

The Egyptians took the art of writing on the walls of their tombs and palaces to a new height by using dazzling colors and figures to record their history but they remained unseen in underground chambers of tombs while the chiseled Heiroglyphs on stone monuments and palaces were ravaged by the passage of time and vandalism.

Man has always been interested in recording his stories since antiquity so used different methods and media in different parts of the world some of which still remain and can be seen and often deciphered but a revolution took place when paper was discovered some say in Egypt where they ground dried papyrus reeds to make an emulsion that they spread layer after layer to make crude paper that was then used to write on by scribes.

In India their ancient texts of Vedas , Puranas and Upanishads were written on palm leaves that became brittle over a period of time so was not considered a perfect medium until paper was introduced perhaps after the Egyptian invention but the Chinese continued to live in isolation for a long period when they used silk or leather to write on.

The invention of paper as we know it today was truly a revolution to preserve art, science, history and religious texts of many religions that survive even today but with the invention of paper came a giant step toward the freedom of expression when free thinkers started to write down on paper what was in their mind on a given subject.

There was a time long ago when every book or journal or document was hand written by scribes who were experts in the art of calligraphy so they took their time in writing and embelishing texts with art, flowers and other visual graphics to turn any hand written book into a masterpiece but it was a very slow process that limited the number of such books that could be written.

The kings and queens patronized such scribes and employed them in large numbers in their courts to write , translate or copy other books from other countries so they built large libaries like the one in Alexandria that was world famous for its collection of hand written books of all sorts. But a period of intolerance to ideas represented in such books led to the total destruction of the Alexandria library by fire so all the valuable knowledge gathered over a long period vanished overnight.

The same thing happened to the library of the Nalanda University in India where the hordes of Muslim invaders made a bonfire of all the books there because of their intolerance to the knowledge preserved in those books. It is said that it took more than six months to burn all the books and manuscripts in their vast library that had taken centuries to fill but the intolerance led to its total desctruction and the slaughter of peace loving people who taught there. You can now visit the ruins of Nalanda to see the immensity of the campus and various structures and examine the burn marks on the stones still visible.

This brings me back to the subject of my blog today and examine why we burn books and why some people feel threatened by the knowledge preserved in books and destroy them. The ancient pharaohs ordered their scribes to write on the walls of their tombs their glorius past and wins in battles but the subsequent pharaohs often ordered the defacement of such history if it did not suit them. You can still see such defacements in monuments in Egypt giving credence to the fact that the history is always written by the victors to glorify their rule that failed to tell the whole story or the truth.

People say that the truth can be subjective and depends on who is telling it so there may be many interpretations of the truth . The truth does not always prevail because some people may choose to ignore it if it does not suit them or their agenda. Often a person chosen as the national hero for political purposes may be far from being a hero but such a hero serves a purpose for the ruling class that glorifies him to help them stay in power.

You will find such examples in almost any country where the powerful political elites who rule their country set up grandiose monuments of such fake heros in public squares and hide the truth that the so called hero was a child molester who beat his wife and was a total pervert. Dictators put up their own statues that are torn down by the angry people when he falls.

But burning a book is far easier and more complete because when it is reduced to ashes, you also separate people from knowledge forever. So people started storing the parchments and scrolls in jars and hid them in secret caves to preserve them and protect them from destruction by people who showed intolerance to such books and documents. The classic case of Qumran or the Dead Sea scrolls discovered by accident by a goatherd in Israel throws light on a period that would have remained obscure had it not been discovered.

The Cultural revolution in China saw the nationwide systematic destruction of Chinese books and ancient documents at a scale not seen since Nalanda and Alexandria because the Chinese leaders had decided to erase their history this way and start writing a new one that suited their agenda. The Red Guards misled by their leaders to go on a rampage led to the destruction and public burning of books everywhere that was a dark period in their ancient country where so much was written and preserved for thousands of years but destroyed in a moment of insanity. The fact that the perpetrators were later judged and punished was too little too late because the damage was done just like in Nalanda.

The question therefore to ask here is why some people deliberately destroy their ancient heritage preserved in books and scrolls even today when such destruction is considered a crime against the collective heritage of the humanity? The youth brigade of the Nazis burned books in public squares to wipe a part of their heritage to rewrite their history to glorify the ascent of Nazis to power.

Source : Book burning rallies in Nazi Germany

There are no easy answers but it has something to do with the political agenda of the rulers of the moment when such people decide to sacrifice their heritage in the name of preserving their own power. It is said that there are no honest historians because the honest historians are punished if they try to record the truth.

An infamous case comes to mind when a world famous historian in India published a book that showed Nehru in a bad light referring to his many shortcomings that did not suit Nehru so he forced this poor man into exile. He was given a fellowship by the Oxford University because he was such a noted scholar .He died there never to return home.

But often the book burning or banning certain books are linked to religious intolerance of one group toward another. It is the irony that during the period of Haroun al Rashid, the famous Khalifa of Baghdad centuries ago , the art, culture and science was at its apex in the Muslim world because the Khalifa was a patron of art, culture, science and astronomy. He ordered his scribes to translate into Arabic many ancient books and literature and built his library full of hand written books. He valued knowledge and rewarded hondsomely the scribes who brought in ancient texts from somewhere and made it a law that scribes and teachers were to be protected anywhere and gave them gifts and safe passage firmans.

Then came a period when the hard core Islamists who saw things differently and enforced their intolerance to anything “unsuitable” by burning, killing and reducing ancient libraries to ashes and the ancient monuments to rubble like in Bamiyan in Afghanistan and Palmyra in Syria recently.

The books printed by any government to propagate their version of history and make such books available to childern in their schools is an obvious effort to brainwash the young generation into believing a fake narrative but it often backfires. Children are told many lies because they are impressionable at a tender age but they grow up and become capable to make up their own mind later. Some become activists and fight fake history and fake news. Others constantly seek the truth and speak in public forums to force people to rethink about the lies they were told.

The story of Netaji Bose comes to mind in India where the Congress government paid historians to write text books that mentioned very briefly the sacrifices Netaji made to make India free and very elaborately the contribution of Gandhi for the freedom of India whom the British found unimportant. Thus they deliberately marginalized Bose who brought independence to India and promoted Gandhi for their political reasons.

This happens in many countries. Will the children ever learn about the way the native Americans were decimated and marginalized by the white immigrants or the fate of the native Australians ? Their children were taken away to “civilize them” and treated brutally by the whites. Who will write the real stories so that the children learn about them ? The written history is always skewed by those in power to push their own agenda that glorifies them and downplays the importance of writing what is the truth.

Now we see that the journalists are killed by those who do not like what they write or publish because the fundamentalists have their own agenda that includes suppression through any means of any one who dares to write and exposes the fallibility of certain religions. Salman Rushdie had to hide from his assailants for several years after he published the Satanic verses that is still banned in many countries. The Harry Potter books were burned by those who thought that the books were promoting witchcraft.

Books of all kinds have proliferated beyong belief since the movable types were invented that made printing easy so books were mass produced for the common people who were learning to read and could afford low cost books. People for the first time could write something that could be published as a book for others to read so it opened the door for the flood of knowledge. It also opened the door for the critical writers who were not afraid to freely express themselves on any subject especially on religious matters that brought them to the cross hairs of the fundamentalists who opposed them.

The future :

Presently there is an enormous amount of knowledge available on line that anyone can access freely on any subject including proscribed subjects that irritate the religious zealots. Amazon and many other websites offer free download of millions of books on any subject that anyone can read anywhere so the era of public book burning is mostly over although some people still do it for symbolic reasons.

The point is that no one can now stop anyone from reading on line because the internet is free and easily accessible in most part of the world. The wikipedia offers articles on any subject and allows you to add your own input on the subject as well. So buying expensive books is less popular now than in the past when so much information was not available. I have read hundreds of books and bought them in many countries but now you can read in Kindle or similar e book readers in color . That is how I downloaded for free Mein Kampf by Hitler that sells for 70 US dollars in stores if available.

So the book burners have a harder time to supress information they do not like. In this age of internet and free downloads, book burning and intolerance to other’s point of views have lost their relevance. I think the internet and e book publishing has done the mankind a great service by making the book burning irrelevant today although the ISIS terrorists and other fundamentalists still do it to show their anger at contrary opinions on their religions because they mostly cater to the sentiments of people who do not read anything. Such people will tell you that all you need to know is written in their holy books so there is no need to learn anything different.

The book stores are still in business because some people still buy books but you will also notice that they do not sell the controversial books like the Satanic verses or books like Jesus in Kashmir because it may provoke some people into doing foolish things.

I only feel that the massive book burning in Germany and China or other parts that destroyed great source of knowledge forever was a great loss to the humanity because what they destroyed could not be replaced. Rare books and manuscripts, hand written books centuries old and other valuable source of knowledge was destroyed in the name of making a clean slate by cutting the link to the past which is a great tragedy.

If the mankind wants to make progress , it can only do so by preserving its past and learning from it. Book burning is definitely not the way to do it.

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