Still Burning and Banning
By Stephen Tuttle | Nov. 27, 2021
The first incident we know about took place in 213 BCE when Emperor Qin Shi Huang, upon conquering new territory, ordered all books, scrolls, or other papers that mentioned his predecessor be burned, lest he be compared unfavorably.
The latest we know about occurred November 8, 2021 CE, when the Spotsylvania County Public School Board in Virginia ordered all school libraries to remove any “sexually explicit” material, and two board members suggested the removed material be burned in school furnaces. The removal order was rescinded and no books were burned, but it seems our instincts to burn or ban books, now at least 2,300 years old, has not waned over time.
The most famous burning in antiquity was the ongoing destruction by fire of the great library at Alexandria that started as early as 60 BCE; as Egypt was repeatedly invaded, there was nothing left by 275 CE. In what was a staggering loss to history, at least 40,000 scrolls and perhaps as many as 400,000 were lost forever.
“Books” might be more of a euphemism than a literal description of the early losses. Scrolls were a more popular form of recording language, and any books were written by hand since the printing press wasn't even invented until 1440. But our desire to burn or otherwise destroy history and knowledge started long before Gutenberg created his press.
The most famous of the modern book burnings occurred in Germany from May through June of 1933 when the Nazis decided to eradicate anything they considered “subversive.” That included any books with Jewish authors or books about Judaism, plus books written by anarchists, communists, pacifists, or liberals. Bonfires of books were celebratory, with planned events, parades, even bands. Historians now believe at least 1.5 million books burned over those two months. The Nazis would later try to eradicate the authors and their followers, too.
We've been busy book burners here, too. In 1948 the powers that be in Binghamton, New York, decided comic books were leading to — or were going to lead to — irretrievable “moral decay.” They went so far as to go house-to-house collecting the offending comics so they could burn them.
There has even been government-sponsored book burning. In 1956, six tons of the books and papers of psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich, whose research focused on human sexuality and something he “discovered” called orgone energy, were burned under the authority of the Food and Drug Administration who claimed they were all promoting a medical device they deemed fraudulent. It's hard to see how that didn't run afoul of the First Amendment since the government was definitely abridging speech. Reich was arrested, convicted, and sentenced to prison, where he died in 1958 along with his research.
In 1973, a school board in Drake, North Dakota, declared some books in school libraries “objectionable” and had them collected and thrown into the school furnace. Among those incinerated were 32 copies of “Slaughterhouse-Five” by Kurt Vonnegut and 60 copies of James Dickey's “Deliverance.” When some students refused to return copies they had borrowed, school lockers were searched to make sure every single “objectionable” book possible was found and fed to the flames.
Bestsellers haven't escaped our burning need to burn. The Harry Potter series, with its wizardry and popularity, has been the target of at least six very public book-burning incidents since 2001. Some folks would like to burn more of them since author J.K. Rowling has made comments deemed offensive to the transgender community.
Bible burning has usually been more of an attempt to outrage than to eradicate the most widely distributed book in history. But in 2008, Orthodox Jews in Israel really did try to round up as many New Testaments as they could and burned them all. Not to be outdone when it comes to religious intolerance, in 2010, a handful of American evangelical clerics burned the Quran, which seems an odd way to prove the superiority of your own religious beliefs.
The king of all book burnings was during China's Cultural Revolution, 1966–1976. Led by Mao Zedong's megalomania, untold millions of books, papers, and historical documents were burned to purify China of anything that didn't agree with Mao.
When not burning, we're banning. Books that schools and, shamefully, some public libraries have traditionally tried to ban are part of a fairly reliable group. Books authored by Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, Ray Bradbury, James Baldwin, and Mark Twain are often at or near the top of the banned list for various reasons. The top 20 books banned this year all focused on LGBT+ or race issues.
The targets have changed, but we're still burning and banning, trying to erase history, competing ideologies, and anything we just don't like or understand. It was appalling in 213 BCE, and it's still appalling in 2021.