The long history of book burning


Local and state GOP leaders are mobilizing across the country to ban the books, many of which deal with racial politics or the LGBTQ community.

Free speech nonprofit Pen America estimated in April that since 2021, more than 1,500 books have been banned in 86 school districts in 26 states.

The censorship efforts have now caught the attention of Congress, which held its second hearing on the issue last week, as well as more than 1,300 children’s book authors who signed a letter to lawmakers warning of a ” dehumanizing form of erasure”.

While bans mark a new trend, there is a long history of trying to erase unpopular or allegedly offensive literature.

History tells us that banning books in certain situations often leads to more drastic efforts to restrict access, said Jonathan Friedman, director of free speech and education at PEN America.

“It’s very clear to anyone involved in this field that it always seems to start with a few books in school, but all of a sudden we’re talking not just about public schools but about public libraries,” Friedman said.

“When you look across the landscape of the country over the past few months, we see a lot of different censorships going on, and each of them could continue to be emulated or reinforced,” he continued.

Throwing books into a raging bonfire is unlikely to happen in the 21st century – although a Tennessee lawmaker recently said he would “burn” them, when asked what he personally would do with the books he opposed.

But Friedman told The Hill that “censorship breeds censorship.”

Bills creating state-authorized committees to review and decide what kinds of books are piled high on library shelves are already in the works, while censorship also weighs on the country’s writers and impacts the type of work they produce, he added.

Here is what history tells us about the censorship of books and the targeted burning of literary and religious works.

Book engraving in the ancient world

Book engraving has often been linked to conquest and imperial government. China’s first emperor orchestrated the first known instance of government-sanctioned book burnings in 213 BC.

Qin Shi Huang wanted the story to begin with him, hence his designation as China’s first emperor despite his known predecessors. Naturally, the books offered a competing narrative.

When his chancellor Li Si suggested burning all books except the official history of Qin State, Shi Huang readily agreed. During his book burning campaign, the emperor also infamously ordered the deaths of hundreds of Confucian scholars, who were buried alive.

The Roman Empire burned countless books during its long reign. The first emperor, Augustus – opposing the books of “prophecies and fates” – ordered that more than 2,000 books be reduced to smoke and ashes, according to “Book Burning” by Haig A. Bosmajian.

One of the greatest losses of literature occurred at the Library of Alexandria, established under Alexander the Great in northern Egypt around 331 BC. The library has been burned down at least three times over hundreds of years and is now permanently obliterated.

At one time, the Library of Alexandria held over half a million documents from several countries, including present-day Syria, Greece, Persia, Egypt and India.

Muslim ruler Caliph Umar took control of the city of Alexandria in 640 AD and dealt a final blow to the library, apparently using its contents as tinder for the city’s public baths, according to Intermediate content public library.

According to some accounts, Umar said the works “either contradict the Quran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, therefore they are superfluous”.

Book engraving in the post-Roman Empire

Religion played a major role in some of the greatest book-burning events after the decline of the Roman Empire began around AD 500.

At the end of the 15th century, the Italian and Dominican religious preacher and reformer Girolamo Savonarola helped drive the Medici family out of the city of Florence and established a new government.

In what became known as the “bonfire of the vanities”, Savonarola oversaw a literal bonfire containing books, photos, jewelry, clothing, paintings and whatever else he collected from of the townspeople and found objectionable.

The Catholic Church held numerous book burnings throughout the medieval period. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX ordered the burning of the Jewish theological work The Talmud as well as “the books in which you find errors of this kind which you will burn at the stake”. according to the Jewish Virtual Library.

As a result of the order, 24 wagons containing thousands of volumes were burned in France in 1242.

Works of religion were frequent targets of the Catholic Church. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V joined others in burning and censoring the works of theologian Martin Luther, whose teachings paved the way for Protestantism.

Other book burning or censorship campaigns were carried out by Pope John XXII, Pope Adrian VI and King Henry VIII, among many other rulers of the medieval period who targeted literature and religious works with which they did not agree.

Auto-da-fé and censorship in the modern world

As the world moved into the 20th century, book burning was widely frowned upon. But many cases of mass censorship and permanent deletion of works still occurred.

Nazi Germany’s cremation of 25,000 “non-German” works on May 10, 1933 is perhaps the most infamous book-burning event because photos and videos of the event are still visible today.

Mao Zedong, the communist leader in China, burned works and books during his Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, a campaign of censorship continued by the current Chinese government. In 2002, Radio Free Asia reported that thousands of pounds belonging to the predominantly Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority were set on fire. Uighurs continue to be subjected to detention camps in Xinjiang today.

A Sinhalese Buddhist mob set fire to 95,000 volumes of the Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka in 1981.

From 1955 to 1971, thousands of books and works were burned by the South African government during apartheid, according to the University of Pretoria.

Major book burning events have also occurred over the past two decades.

In Bosnia, 2 million books were reportedly burned by Serbian nationalists in 1992. In Timbuktu, Mali, ancient writings were set on fire in 2013 by Islamist fighters.

And the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria burned down the University of Mosul library in Iraq around 2015.

Censorship campaigns in the United States

The United States has already fought against censorship. JK Rowling’s ‘Harry Potter’ series has long been targeted for allegedly promoting witchcraft. Kurt Vonnegut’s sci-fi novel “Slaughterhouse Five”, the Quran and even Beatles records have also been burned and banned by individual actors or groups.

But the number of book bans in the United States today is unprecedented, Pen America’s Friedman said. The researcher said that since his April report, at least another 200 books have been banned in states across the country.

“There are shared book lists all over the country, and communities of people are encouraged to ban those lists,” Friedman said. “I think these lists are more extensive than anything we’ve seen before.”


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