Tuesday, September 07, 2010

FAHRENHEIT 451 redux

by Miriam

I was on vacation last week, trying to keep off e-mail and the internet, and failing on both counts. When I found myself needing a break from the non-stop thrills of The Hunger Games trilogy, I’d wander over to the computer and check out my favorite news sites to see what or who was going to hell now. Paris Hilton banned from Vegas? Jan Brewer smiling idiotically at the camera for an hour and a half or so in the worst debate ever? Stephen Hawking jumping on the Christopher Hitchens bandwagon and dissing God? (Well, it does seem to sell books….)

But then my pleasure reading dovetailed nicely with my need to keep up with the relentless news cycle. I was still savoring Collins’ wonderful referencing of Fahrenheit 451 in Mockingjay when I read about the Florida pastor who seems to think it a novel and fine idea to burn the Quran as a 9/11 protest and I was once again struck by the thought that it’s amazing that our civilization has managed to survive our seeming inability to learn anything from history. And, why is it that religious and political zealots always seem to vent their general hatred of humanity on books? From Savonarola to Hitler to all those crazy fundamentalists who feel threatened by the dictionary, it seems that every time someone’s pissed off about something, there’s a marshmallow roast at a literary bonfire.

Now, we here at DGLM try to stay out of the political fray as much as possible. One of the tenets of our business is the freedom of ideas and expression. Most of us who work in publishing understand that no matter how loathsome an idea it is necessary to defend its author’s right to communicate it. As readers, we can choose not to buy the book. Or, we can choose to debate and counter that author’s arguments and defeat his/her position with rational and well-conceived rebuttals. Everyone who has been a publishing professional for any length of time has occasionally had to be involved with the publication of a book whose message or viewpoint s/he did not agree with. And most of us are appalled when certain groups rally together to boycott or ban a certain title on political, religious or moral grounds.

The Florida pastor planning the latest book burning is just following in a long tradition of intolerance and ignorance. Clearly, he doesn’t understand that books, like phoenixes, rise from the flames of censorship. The Quran, the Bible, and the Torah, have survived many of these gory ceremonies and come back stronger than ever. As have Anne Frank, Toni Morrison, Kurt Vonnegut, and Webster’s dictionary (last I heard they keep adding new words, some of them objectionable). Of course, that kind of attempted repression often (and perversely) makes for the premise of great literature.

What do you think? Is it ever okay to burn books?


  1. It seems to me that most people assume if a book is worth burning, then it's worth reading. People who try to make a stand this way just end up having it blow up in their faces.

  2. The only way I can see burning a book being acceptable is if you have to do it for survival purposes. Say, if the Ice Age comes and you have a choice between burning books and freezing to death.

    Aside from that, though? Not so much.

  3. Quoting from a friend's facebook comment (because that idiot is about 5 miles from where I live and I'd just joked about the third thing we have --after the gators and "don't taze me bro" --that made national news). Anyway she said, "Pointing out to non-Gainesvillians, the whole "Burn a Koran Day" thing is 30 people from the same Westboro supporting, koolaidy church. All their publicity stunts (including sending little kids to school in "Islam is of the Devil" shirts) tend to be geared towards selling their leader's book about Islam (although it's clear he's never studied any religious text, Bible included)."

    And she's right. And it made national news immediately after the city denied them a burn permit. So I'm waiting to see if they do it anyway and get arrested or if they find a spot outside of town burn ordinances or if they give up because all they wanted was the publicity of the moment.

    But now that that's out of the way: My first thought on book burning is: NOOOOOOOOO!

    Second thought is: Well, if they legally buy all the books they plan on burning, well, they have every right to do it.

  4. If I had a physical book, I'd be happy to sell 100 copies -- at discount even -- to a cult just so they COULD burn them on national news.

    Think of the PUBLICITY. What a sales bump that would be.

    That's another drawback to ebooks. Burning a hundred digital copies on a Kindle doesn't have the same flair (flare?). The Kindle just sort of melts quietly into a puddle.

    It won't be long before a good old-fashioned book burning is passe.

    Seriously, you can burn things in effigy (people, national spirit, ideas), but the things themselves will go on. No radical group can squelch majority opinion -- at least not for long.

  5. Seriously, you'd think people would have learned by now that if you want a book to go unread you don't even tell anyone about it let alone burn it!

  6. I'd burn a book if I was freezing to death... even then I might let my fingers go a little frost-bitten before I lit the match.

    I find it odd that someone could hate a book so much that they would burn it. They're so terrified by the ideas in those pages that they have to get rid of them. But ideas outlive their corporal forms and burning books is nothing more than showmanship in the end.

  7. I loved the XKCD comic about book burning a few weeks back.

    Is it ever "ok" (i.e. acceptable) to burn a book? If I'm freezing to death, sure.

    There was one book I bought a copy of, read, and then destroyed, because it was actually physically dangerous. (It urged readers to do things that could kill them and never warned the readers that this stuff was dangerous, and it sounded innocent to anyone that didn't know what was involved.)

    I didn't want to give that book away and be responsible for someone else's death. I didn't want to throw it in the trash (where it belonged) because I didn't someone else to find it. I didn't want it on my shelves, where someone might think I endorsed the ideas. So, I shredded it.

    Did I hold a party and invite people to the shredding? No. Will I name the title or author in this post? No. I wish I could have thought of something else to do, but I didn't know what else I could ethically do. It was like trying to get rid of a gun.

  8. Through reading the blog and comments that follow, I recall a quote from my all-time favorite movie, V for Vendetta. "We are told to remember the idea, not the man, because a man can fail. He can be caught, he can be killed and forgotten, but 400 years later, an idea can still change the world."

    Case in point, you can burn the book or as many copies as you have. The idea still remains. Burning the book does not kill the idea, or story or the lessons contained within. It matters not the media, nor the method of destruction, the very act is a useless waste of resources and fails to its very core.

    We, as authors, take our passion seriously and it is hard for me to even think of burning a book. I find it totally absurd. I do, however, respect the right to protest. Even the ignorant deserve a voice…unfortunately.

  9. school notes, yes
    books, no... unless I need to keep warm in the coming ice age ;)

  10. I don't think they are burning books to destroy Islam. I don't think anyone can think that.

    If I went out and torched every copy of Nigella Lawson's Nigella Bites I wouldn't expect to find out that suddenly people completely forget how to Cook. Young professionals freeze suddenly, confused as to why they have diced chalots and tomatoes on their chopping board, or why there's a knife in their hand, or what that hot box in the kitchen is.

    Having said that, these people are so batsh!t crazy there's a chance that is EXACTLY what they believe