On the burning of books


I once thought about writing a story in which an obsessive bibliophile – determined to have the only copy of a private press book – steals all the others in existence and kills their owners. At the story’s climax, he builds a huge bonfire – but of course, in his madness, he’s added his own book to the pile and they are all consumed. The bibliophile dies trying to put the fire out and rescue his copy, and finally chokes under a mountain of hot ash.

Now, I’ve never burnt a book, and I’m reasonably sure I never will (but not certain; and we’ll come back to that later). For me, the idea is pointless – as though it’s the paper and the ink which are important, when of course the magic really lives in the words and the ideas. You’re not going to obliterate those by burning a few hundred or even a few thousand copies. But that hasn’t stopped plenty of people from trying.

The Nazis were big book-burning fans, which tells you all you need to know about them. Last Friday was the 80th anniversary of one of their most significant book-becues (sorry), which took place in Berlin on Bebelplatz, on the 10th May 1933. There are two points I’d like to draw your attention to here. First, Bebelplatz is named after August Bebel, one of the founders of the Social Democratic Party. Had he still been alive in the 1930s, he would undoubtedly have been one of Hitler’s fiercest critics. ‘Anti-semitism is the socialism of fools‘ is a quote often attributed to him.

Second (if the above isn’t irony enough), how about burning books in a square whose name is awfully reminiscent of a story from Genesis? An autocratic power (God) feels threatened (by the building of the Tower of Babel), and so destroys something (a common language) which brings people together. Sound familiar? On 10th May, the books burned included those by Sigmund Freud, but I’m not sure you need his level of sophistication to see the parallels. Whether the Nazis chose Bebelplatz deliberately as a slap in the face to Bebel himself,  or just because it was conveniently central, I don’t know. But whatever their reasons, the name perhaps belies more than they would have liked to admit.

bebelplatz memorialBebelplatz still exists, and now includes a striking memorial to the book-burning, by Israeli artist Micha Ullman. A glass plate shows a view into an underground room, which is lined with empty bookcases. During the day, the glass reflects the sky and surrounding buildings. At night the room is lit up, making the empty shelves even more apparent, whilst also mirroring the destructive light of the original bonfire.

Close by is a plaque, which includes a quote from the poet Heinrich Heine: ‘Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.’ Bebelplatz is now also home to an annual book sale, organised by students from the nearby Humboldt University to mark the anniversary of the burning – which is about the most perfect combination of commemoration/up yours that I can think of.

Literature is littered with examples of bibloclasm and libricide – from the book which takes its title from the temperature at which paper ignites, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, through to the destruction of the monastery library by fire in The Name of the Rose. As some of these demonstrate, book-burning isn’t always by choice – and this brings me back to my earlier uncertainty. Whenever I think about it, the one example that first comes to mind (and which has stayed with me since I first read it over 10 years ago) is from Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves.

house of leavesHouse of Leaves is an extraordinary book, and one I’d press into your hands for all sorts of reasons.  It’s a story about a haunted house, and about photographer Will Navidson’s attempts to capture the haunting on film. But it’s also so much more – the text and the way it is laid out mirror the plot, so that Navidson’s exploration of the labyrinth at the heart of his home is in a chapter full of text that runs backwards, upside-down and through a tangle of footnotes (some of which refer to each other, and lead to a host of dead ends and blind alleys). In doing this, Danielewski slows the act of reading right down, reflect Navidson’s unsettling and uncertain journey through the maze. Carrying House of Leaves around is also a great way of keeping fit. My copy weighs in at 1.2 kilos, and would give even the most fervent book-burner pause to scratch his empty head. Although, as we shall see, there are ways around this little problem…

Towards the end of the book, Navidson has descended deep into the maze and finds himself disorientated, and in the dark. He is cold, afraid, and alone. Almost all of his equipment has stopped functioning, except his cassette recorder: ‘Taking a tiny sip of water, and burying himself deeper in his sleeping bag, he turns his attention to the last possible activity, the only book in his possession.

Navidson’s only source of light is a single book of matches. And so he lights each match, reading a page by its light. But his book is over 700 pages long, and the number of matches limited – and so Navidson tears out the first page, rolling it into a tight stick which he turns into a torch. It burns for two minutes, allowing him the time to read the next two pages, which in turn are ripped out and rolled into a torch. An ingenious plan, but Navidson somehow falls behind. He resorts to lighting the cover and the spine. He tries to read faster, burning his fingers and losing some of the text.

In the end Navidson is left with one page and one match. For a long time he waits in darkness and cold, postponing this final bit of illumination. At last though, he grips the match by the neck and after locating the friction strip sparks to life a final ball of light.

First, he reads a few lines by match light and then as the heat bites his fingertips he applies the flame to the page. Here then is one end: a final act of reading, a final act of consumption. And as the fire rapidly devours the paper, Navidson’s eyes frantically sweep down over the text, keeping just ahead of the necessary immolation, until as he reaches the last few words, flames lick around his hands, ash peels off into the surrounding emptiness, and then as the fire retreats, dimming, its light suddenly spent, the book is gone leaving nothing behind but invisible traces already dismantled in the dark.’ (Mark Z. Danielewski, House of Leaves, p.467)

Reading a scene as cinematic and vivid as this, it’s no surprise to learn that Danielewski’s father was a film-maker. It’s an extraordinary vignette, packed full of meaning; and despite my own visceral distaste for the burning of books, Navidson’s actions move me very deeply. They describe to me the whole process of reading – with each page quite literally illuminated by the one before it – and how all the books we read are inter-linked. Past books foreshadow future ones, and new stories echo the most ancient fables. No one book can stand in isolation.

It’s also a curiously comforting scene. Despite all the book-burners there may be in the world, thankfully they will always be outnumbered by the readers – those people who want to be challenged, and to reach the end of the page before the flames do. As with Will Navidson, the time we are given is short and uncertain; better to risk burning our fingers grappling with the thoughts of others, than by adding to a pile of burning books.

And just before I go – in case you were wondering:

Q: What was the book that Navidson carried with him into the haunted house on Ash Tree Lane, and which he eventually tore apart, reading it by page-light whilst the darkness closed in around him?

A: House of Leaves.

Sleep well.


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