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Burning books: 6 outrageous, tragic and weird examples in history

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Amid increasingly contentious debates over how issues of race should be taught in schools, two school board members in Spotsylvania County, Va., suggested this week that certain books should be not only banned but also thrown “in a fire.” This comes on the heels of the Virginia governor’s race that saw the triumphant candidate, Republican Glenn Youngkin, making a campaign issue of Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved,” which some conservatives want removed from curriculums.

‘I think we should throw those books in a fire’: Movement builds on right to target books

A new wave of book-banning has spread across this nation this year, as The Fix’s Aaron Blake recently explained. Book-burning might seem far more extreme, but lighting taboo tomes on fire has a long history: The first recorded incident goes back to 213 BCE in China.

Here are six instances of tragic, outrageous and just downright weird bonfires of books.

Mayan sacred texts

The indigenous Mayans that the Catholic Bishop Diego de Landa encountered on the Yucatán Peninsula in the 16th century came to trust him so much that they shared with him something special: sacred writings preserved on deerskin in Mayan hieroglyphs. These books were “jealously guarded, secret and exclusive possessions,” according to anthropologist Inga Clendinnen in her book “Ambivalent Conquests: Maya and Spaniard in Yucatán, 1517-1570.”

But a few years later, Landa betrayed that trust. Accompanied by other church officials, he gathered as many of these books as he could find and burned them. They were full of “superstition and lies of the devil,” he later wrote. “We burned them all, which they regretted to an amazing degree and which caused them great affliction.”

Braille books

Ask anyone burning books why they’re doing it and they’ll likely claim high-minded reasons — because the books are “obscene” or “blasphemous” or not supportive of their fascist regime, such as the Nazis.

But why, in the early 1840s, did the head of the French school for the blind where student-turned-teacher Louis Braille developed his embossed-dot-code burn more than 70 books that had been printed using it?

Pierre-Armand Dufau’s reasons, as explained by the American Federation for the Blind, sound petty: rivalry and a fear of obsolescence. Dufau, who was not blind, supported a different embossing method that was easier for sighted teachers to teach — even though it was harder for the blind to read and write. If Braille’s method succeeded, Dufau “was afraid that there would be no need for sighted teachers.”

After the Braille book-burning, students and other teachers at the school rebelled, continuing to use Braille in secret. Eventually Dufau relented, and in later years, he even claimed a measure of credit for Braille’s invention.

Comstock laws

The New York Society for the Suppression of Vice was so gung-ho about burning books that it included an image of the act on its official seal. Its founder, Anthony Comstock, was so disgusted by the proliferation of pornography among his fellow soldiers while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War that he spent the rest of his life campaigning against it. A series of state and federal laws banning “obscenity” are now commonly referred to as the Comstock laws.

Comstock’s idea of what was obscene was expansive and included Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass,” anatomy textbooks for medical students and especially anything providing women with information about contraception. “Books are feeders for brothels,” he declared. Comstock allegedly oversaw the destruction of 15 tons of books.

The Nazis

Tens of thousands of books were burned within months of the Nazis’ seizure of power in Germany, starting with a nationwide event on May 10, 1933. Student-led Nazi groups gathered in 34 university towns to destroy copies of books that propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels had deemed “un-German,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. That included works by socialist writers like Karl Marx and Helen Keller, American novelists Ernest Hemingway and Jack London, and scores of Jewish writers like Franz Werfel and Heinrich Heine.

One of Heine’s plays includes the famous line, “Where they burn books, they will also ultimately burn people.” Which, in the case of the Nazis, turned out to be tragically true.

Harry Potter

It is perhaps fitting that one of the best-selling book series of all time should also be one of the most regularly burned. There was the 2001 bonfire by a church in Alamogordo, N.M., in which Ouija boards were thrown in for good measure; a 2003 burning by pastors in Michigan; and a 2002 Maine incident in which five pastors slashed copies of the book after they couldn’t get a bonfire permit from the fire department. All of them claimed that the fictional series promoted sorcery and witchcraft.

In 2017, fire-starters had a new reason to light up the books: J.K. Rowling’s vocal opposition to President Donald Trump. Rowling was nonplussed, telling one former fan on Twitter, “I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.”

In 2019, a priest in Poland had to apologize and pay a fine after burning one of the Potter books, along with an African mask, elephant figurines and a Buddha statue. He had told his congregants to bring in things that disturbed them.

War in Afghanistan

No books have gone up in flames as consistently throughout human history as religious texts like the Bible, Quran and Talmud. (Seriously, it has been constant.) In a few cases, the source of those flames has been the federal government.

In 2009, copies of the Christian Bible were burned by the U.S. military in Afghanistan. The Bibles had been translated into Dari and Pashto and sent to members of the military at Bagram air base by a Christian group. Proselytizing any religion was against military guidelines. When a military chaplain found out, the books were confiscated and eventually burned.

In 2012, a Taliban suicide bomber attacked the same base for “revenge” after news got out that four Qurans had been accidentally burned. The Muslim holy books were part of a collection that had been confiscated from prisoners, after officials suspected they were passing secret messages in the books. Outrage over the burning led to protests across Afghanistan that left 30 dead.

One of the weirder book-burnings also came via the U.S. military. Former Army Reserve and Defense intelligence officer Anthony Shaffer submitted his memoir, “Operation Dark Heart,” for Pentagon approval, as is standard, but the process was apparently bungled. By the time intelligence officials flagged 200 passages they said contained classified information, 10,000 copies had already been published. So the Defense Department paid the publisher nearly $50,000 to purchase them all, and subsequently burned them.

News of the book-burning bolstered sales of future printings of the book, by then redacted, and an attorney for the author later told the New York Times, “I can only wish that the government would destroy more of my clients’ books!”

Read more Retropolis:

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