Unfortunately, books have been burned all over the world, under regimes from the classical age to today. The list below was compiled in a loose, un-ranked order on the not-at-all scientific basis of impact and interest. Sadly, it includes but a handful of the instances in which books have met fire.
1. The Quran
In 2010, Christian fundamentalist pastor Terry Jones caused an international stir by promising to burn the Muslim holy book on the anniversary of 9/11. The resulting upheavals around the world saw more than 20 people killed and pleas from leaders across the political spectrum not to proceed. Jones never went through with his public torching, though the next year he did burn some copies in his church's sanctuary.
2. The Works of Helen Keller
Yes, Helen Keller. This includes The Story of My Life, along with The World I Live In and Out of the Dark.
As she's since been elevated to secular sainthood, it's forgotten by many that Keller was also a fierce radical, advocating for economic and social equality. She was also a living rebuke to the Nazis’ belief that the disabled were inferior, and that made her a target for their infamous 1933 book burnings. Her works went into the flames along with those of dozens of other writers while Joseph Goebbels bellowed about a new German era — but one of the things that endures best is Keller's rebuke:
History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.
You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels, and will continue to quicken other minds.
3. The Etrusca Disciplina
Little is known about the Etruscans, a Northern Italian culture that exerted a major influence on Roman society even after their eventual conquest and absorption. One major reason for this is that in the 5th century A.D., the Etrusca Disciplina, the ancient books of religion and divination, were burned on a rising tide of religious zealotry. Around the same time, many other influential pagan texts also made it into the flames of the late Roman Empire, creating a major gap in our understanding of history.
4. The Histories of the Aztecs
“It is not wise that all the people should see the paintings,” decreed the Aztec Emperor Izcoatl, and so all the histories of the Aztecs up to that time went into the fire.
Izcoatl's actions were a classic tyrant move: erase any conflicting versions of history to create a less real, if more palatable one. The world too lost out, as combined with the later Spanish destruction of the Aztec works, a wealth of knowledge about an important culture was gone forever.
5. The Poems of Sappho
Sappho, dubbed “the 10th muse” by the Greeks, produced some of the first work in Western culture to focus not on the violent epics of competing tribes, but on the inner life of individuals as they grappled with love, life and the world. Just the fragments of Sappho's work that have survived have fueled poets throughout the centuries — it’s powerful, passionate stuff — but they're just a tiny, tiny fraction of the nine volumes known to ancient scholars.
Why? Well, burning isn't the only way to destroy books. The Romans, usually terrified of independent female literary minds, copied Sappho's works less than the Greeks. Add to that an accident of history — the difficulty of the particular dialect she wrote in — and their supply shrank further.
But two burnings by church authorities (Sappho wrote hymns to pagan gods and goddesses) put the nail in the coffin: the first in 380 A.D. and the second in 1073. Fragments of her work still emerge occasionally, and the hope for a literary miracle — a mostly intact set — endures.
6. Tarikh al-Sudan
When Islamist militants stormed into Timbuktu late last year, they quickly came to the city's centuries-old libraries. This work, compiled by historian Abd al-Sadi in the 1600s, is a history of West Africa filled with stories and legends, as well as some of the main accounts of the area's once-mighty empires. It forms a key part of the region’s cultural heritage — but to the militants, the work and many other ancient manuscripts were just heretical kindling.
Fortunately, this story has a somewhat happy ending: While some books were lost, most were saved by committed locals who risked their lives to save their culture from extremists.
7. The Woman Rebel and “Family Limitation”
In the early 20th century, an epic clash between birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and politician Anthony Comstock over Sanger's informative works helped break the restrictive censorship laws that had dominated the latter part of the 19th century. Sanger intended her works — first The Woman Rebel newspaper and then the pamphlet “Family Limitation” — to be a blatant challenge to the Comstock Act, which barred “obscene” material from being sent through the mail. Comstock obligingly had her indicted and eventually arrested her husband. Seized copies of both Sanger’s works were burned — standard procedure for Comstock.
Unlike many modern groups, Comstock's crew, the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, didn't cover their desire to crush their enemies behind platitudes. The society's seal (above) showed a police officer shoving a man into prison and another man in a top hat burning books.
Sanger's husband served 30 days in prison, but she had the eventual victory as repeated court decisions whittled away at censorship laws.
8. The Talmud
Holy texts are a common target of book burnings throughout history, but the Jewish holy scriptures have been a particular victim over the millennia. They've been burned by everyone from Hellenistic Greek emperors to their Roman successors to medieval tyrants (Christian and Muslim) to 20th century fascists. Judaism's strong emphasis on scholarship and protecting the written word has remained one step ahead of the despots, thankfully.
9. Jan Hus' De Ecclesia
Hus, a Czech theologian living in the early 1400s, preached an egalitarian take on Christianity and called for a more accessible church, something that didn't sit well with local authorities. While De Ecclesia was heavily based off of the English dissident John Wycliffe's work of the same name, it proved fiery stuff in the repressive climate of the time. Accounts differ as to whether Hus was burned on top of his works or he saw them burned on his way to the pyre. Either way, the authorities responsible probably thought that took care of things.
They were wrong. Peasants and townsfolk alike rose up violently, slaughtering the officials in the Defenestration of Prague. Using early guns and innovative tactics, the Hussites proceeded to crush the five Crusades sent against them. While their rebellion eventually fell to infighting, for one of the first times in centuries, the Church had to negotiate a settlement rather than kill the heretics and burn their works.
Thanks to Hus and his followers, the ability of the Church to simply slaughter its ideological opponents and suppress their ideas was forever weakened. Not coincidentally, a Renaissance followed in the wake of this loosening of the Inquisitorial hand. When a small-time German pastor named Martin Luther started to get crotchety, a gun-shy church burned his works but let him live. Things changed very rapidly after.
10. Analects of Confucius
While relatively little known to Western audiences, for sheer impact it's hard to beat the bluntly named burning of books and burying of scholars carried out by Emperor Qin Shi Huang as he unified China. The Legalist philosophy of his regime ranks as one of the most totalitarian ever devised by human beings. The influence of the Hundred Schools of Thought was brought to a screeching halt by a relentless attempt to crush one of the most fascinating intellectual periods in history and to destroy almost every work that wasn't a technical manual.
While there are many reasons for the endurance of Confucianism, Taoism and the other traditions that survived this crackdown, chief among them was that their works best weathered the storm. The history of billions of people in Asia might be very different today if Confucianism's works were completely wiped out and Mohism, for example, instead survived.
11. The Works of Theodore Dreiser
The name Theodore Dreiser doesn’t inspire the terror in mainstream society that it used to and Indiana doesn’t exactly stand out as a hot-bed of reactionary fervor, but back in 1935, the brutal naturalism of works like Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy still made Dreiser’s work a target. In Warsaw, near the home of evangelist Billy Sunday, the library trustees ordered all copies of Dreiser’s works consigned to the flames.
Sadly, it wasn’t the town’s last bout with book burning. In the late 1970s, a conservative backlash also saw the local student newspaper shut down, teachers fired and copies of offending literature burned in parking lot ceremonies. Despite both incidents, Dreiser’s work and those of the other authors that outraged the town fathers still endure.
And that is the key to all of these book burnings, wherever and whenever they took place: They didn’t work. For all the damage done by censors, there will always be a new batch of dangerous insights to challenge them. From the printing press to the Internet, we have figured out more ways to save and spread knowledge, and thankfully there’s no fire big enough to stop that.
David Forbes is a journalist and writer based in Asheville, North Carolina. He spends way too much time investigating the bleak parts of the present for local paper Mountain Xpress and the stranger parts of history, politics and culture for his own curiosity. He’s written for NSFWCORP, Sunlight Foundation, Coilhouse and his own intermittently updated blog, The Breaking Time, among others.
This coverage of atrocities in literary history is brought to you by Clementine Classics: Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser, the first installment in the Clementine Classics e-book series from Black Balloon Publishing.
Sometimes reading the classics is a chore, but not so with the snarky annotations by Clementine the Hedgehog. Having made her debut as a weekly book reviewer of note on Tumblr in 2012, Clem now takes on Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser. On each page, she inserts her keen insights, dark sense of humor and cut-the-crap commentary.
Clementine Classics is a new series from Black Balloon Publishing that gives classic works of literature the contemporary annotations they deserve. Obsessed, possessed and thoroughly distressed by the originals, today's writers riff, rant, praise and flay these old books, giving them new life. The series' beautifully designed e-books are both an act of sincere literary criticism and a new, composite form of humor writing.
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