Sunday, June 03, 2007


One of the earliest historical records of a large scale destruction of books by fire is of the Great Library of Alexandria. Founded by Ptolemy II, this library contained rare manuscripts of the ancient world including that treatise on the Mauryan Empire, Megasthenes' Indica. What caused the fire is unclear but most historical sources including Plutarch mention that it spread across the docks into the library building, destroying a large part of its collection of 1 million scrolls.

Alexandria was the not the first time books were burnt. As early as the 2nd century B.C., the Emperors of the Qin dynasty in China had issued royal decrees to burn books along with their authors. It doesn't take great genius to conclude that these books were the ones that didn't kowtow to the Imperial order.

Through the middle ages, thousands of books and scrolls were set on fire and entire libraries destroyed if they fell in the path of marauding armies. Religious literature faced the worst. The wars with the Catholic Church cost many faiths their entire literature. When the Cathars of France were vanquished by the Church in the 13th century, almost all their works ended in bonfires. Then came the great Spanish Inquistion that saw more destruction of books than ever before. Jewish literature, had often faced indiscriminate destruction in Europe and it is a marvel that anything of worth has managed to survive till date. Ironically it was Chengis Khan, that genocidal general and maniac warlord who left human skulls in his wake, who forbade his soldiers from destroying libraries and burning books.

Revolutions were sparked by grand ideas and thoughts but that didn't change the fate of books and libraries. The people who proclaimed Liberté, égalité, fraternité weren't any different from medieval warlords and soon the royal libraries in Paris were set on fire. Centuries later the revolution that ushered in the "dictatorship of the proletariat" indiscriminately burnt libraries from Moscow to Vladivostok and books pertaining to non Communist thought, such as books on profits, freedom, economy or royal history were set on fire.

Less than two decades later in 1933, the modern world would see another such spectacle, as Nazi Germany sent thousands upon thousands of books into flames at a huge celebration in Berlin's public square amidst nationalistic chants.

In recent years, Indonesia under Suharto's regime burnt an entire library of the dissident author Pramoedya Ananta Toer . And in 1992 Serbs burnt Bosnian libraries at Sarajevo during the Bosnian civil war.

But why am I suddenly blogging about burning books? Because it is in news yet again. This time as a symbol of protest. Tom Wayne of prospero books in Kansas city has set a few hundred books to flame to protest against the current downward spiral in reading. Said Wayne as he lit the first books, "this is the funeral pyre for thought in America today".


Blogger aparajita said...

Can Kansas represent the reading index of the United States? This is using the cookie-cutter formula... i.e. what's true of a part of Kansus state is true of all the States. I'd prefer the glass half full rather than being half empty! So the optimist in me (as far as reading and apreciating books are concerned) refuses to see the "logic" in this "tempest"-uous declaration.

9:50 AM  
Blogger shampa said...

I agree with you. Was quite aghast to see mounds of books downed by the flames!!!!

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