I've been following the story of Florida pastor Terry Jones with interest. On the news this morning I heard he's decided not to host a Koran burning on 11 September, after receiving requests, warnings and opprobrium from various senior figures, including the Pope, President Obama, Hillary Clinton and even Sarah Palin. What disturbs me about the response to his outrageous proposal was that so much of it was focused on possible recriminations. His gesture was criticised more because of its inflammatory propensities in an already volatile global environment than because book burning itself is a vile and alarming act. His right to burn the books was even defended by New York mayor Michael Bloomburg, who said the 'distasteful' gesture was an exercise of the pastor's first amendment right to freedom of speech. Whether or not setting fire to something constitutes 'speech', in the twentieth century at least, book burning has been rightly viewed as a signal of descent into ignorance, barbarism and violence. It is a refusal to engage the mind or the heart; ironically, it is a denial of the human freedom to think and feel. An act of provocation, it is also fundamentally an act of illiteracy. It reveals a misapprehension of what books are and how they work. The burning of books is the rage of the fool against what he does not understand.
To mark this sorry episode, here's Bertolt Brecht's sardonic poem on "The Burning of Books."
When the Regime commanded that books with harmful knowledge
Should be publicly burned and on all sides
Oxen were forced to drag cartloads of books
To the bonfires, a banished
Writer, one of the best, scanning the list of the Burned, was shocked to find that his
Books had been passed over. He rushed to his desk
On wings of wrath, and wrote a letter to those in power ,
Burn me! he wrote with flying pen, burn me! Haven’t my books
Always reported the truth ? And here you are
Treating me like a liar! I command you!