Saturday, September 11, 2010

On the burning of books.

I am reposting my 2006 essay on the burning of books, any kind of book, holy, secular or even heretical

Do we have to repeat the same mistakes that have caused millions of human lives?

Holocausts begin with the burning of books but if a holy book is burned this time, could a book be enough to stop it?

[A pastor's plan to burn the Koran was canceled due to global condemnation]

When Books are Burned

There is something very sinister with a book burning, an evil that is worse than murder. The world first realized the horrors of what the Nazis were to unleash in Europe when they burned books. A renowned American writer who wrote a biography of Anne Frank rightly placed these events in their proper context. The Holocaust started with a book, (Hitler’s “Mein Kampf”, a book infinitely more evil and lie filled than the “Da Vinci Code”) continued with the burning of more books, then the burning of millions of men, women and children and ended with a the publication of a book.  And that book is none other than Anne Frank’s diary. “The Diary of Anne Frank” is the second most printed book in history, outranked only by the Bible.

Why do we burn books anyway? John Steinbeck in an essay about books in 1951 writes that “When a book is burned, the ultimate tyranny has been committed” Why? It is because that books are believed first before other forms of media are believed in. But why are books believed first?  Because books have power because they have the truth. And this makes books sacred. Steinbeck wrote so because books don’t lie or appear not to lie. A books filled with lies will be soon consigned to oblivion. A reader finds this out from page one and word will soon spread to other readers to the horror of publication houses that bankrolled the book. And if the book is mere propaganda, the sooner it will be cast into oblivion.

And so books continue to liberate men and women. In societies under tyrannical regimes, people first don’t ask for clothes, shelter or even food, but books. And when people are arrested, the police first take away the books. If they can’t arrest the authors or the publishers, they confiscate the books. If they can’t confiscate all the books, they kill those who read them. And that always fails, the books still get read and live.

Thus we cannot forgive the burning of books. Books represent the summit of knowledge, truth and freedom in our midst. Of course, books being written by humans cannot claim to tell the whole truth. But the human spirit seeks for truth. And soon enough  the human spirit will encounter the truth most likely through a book. It is no wonder that the Divine  speaks to us through books. It does not surprise us that Saint John used the metaphor for the Divine as the Word that dwelt amonst us.

So book burning is nothing but hate against the truth. And to quote Yoda “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to the Dark Side”. But what precedes hate? It is  ignorance. Ignorance can only be cured by reading books. Our national heroes Rizal and Bonifacio did just that and liberated themselves and then their people.

So if we have sectors of society that burn books, what does that tell us? Are we a society that values learning and tolerance?  More importantly; are we really free? If we have a Catholic priest tasked by the Pope to study The Book, leading the burning of a book, what then does that tell about Catholicism? If we have Christians who whom our Muslim brethren consider as a “People of The Book” burn books what then does that tell non-Christians of the Christian faith?  

There is only one way to kill a book. Just don’t read it. “Mein Kampf” is still sold in many bookshops around the world including those in Metro Manila but today who buys and reads this hate and lie filled book except perhaps students and scholars of the Holocaust? A book that is no longer read is dead. “The Diary of Anne Frank” a book that tells about the truth about the Holocaust from the eyes of a child,  still sells like pancakes and many young people continue to read it. And the old among us continue to reread it. It lives and gives life. It liberates us from prejudice.

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