Not all ideas need to be spread any further.
I already know what you’re thinking: this is cancel culture gone mad. We should all be able to agree that book burning is bad. Nazis burned books. Nazis are bad. Let’s not get distracted by the fact that a frightening number of our neighbours apparently can’t even agree on that “Nazis are bad” part, and focus on the book burning bit. Even the politicians quite happy to court the white supremacist vote seem to be able to get outraged about book burning. It is the implied core of the straw man argument about cancel culture that has them constantly infuriated, after all, even if they aren’t accusing the left of literally heaving Dr Seuss onto bonfires. Which might seem awkward after they’ve made such a big deal out of publicly burning their NFL merchandise and Keurig machines, and some on the right have even burned Harry Potter books, but they won’t let a little irony get in the way of their furious culture warmongering. Book burning is an easy way to depict the bad guy in a movie as obviously evil. What sort of monster makes a case for book burning?
There’s something deeply sacred about books. They can transport your consciousness into the mind of another person, real or otherwise, and doing so improves your ability to empathize with other human beings and can make you a better person. Books serve as the repository of our accumulated knowledge, recording the work of mental giants on whose shoulders we stand as we push back the boundaries of scientific ignorance a little farther bit by bit. They contain the lessons of history we must learn if we hope not to repeat them, and preserve the data that we need to judge what is true and what is not. To a bibliophile, cracking the spine on a beloved book can be a surprisingly intense personal experience, and one of the reasons I fell in love with the house I live in is the bookshelves built onto the back of the library door so that when you close the door the walls are all library. I have a serious love affair with books.
So whether we’re talking about book burning to destroy a culture or book burning to destroy knowledge, I’ve got to give it a hard no. No with a raised voice or an expletive if necessary. If you’ve got a problem with books, you’ve got a problem with me. I will defend the library. Knowledge is power, and no one should be deprived of that resource.
Not all books are created equal. Not all of them serve a useful purpose. A book is a tool. It can be well designed to inform, or to misinform. It can open your eyes to seeing the world in a beautiful new way, or it can indoctrinate you into a hateful ideology. A book can be written by the top experts with the best of intentions, but still cause harm. Any medical textbook written before 1981 is wrong about what causes ulcers and how they can be treated, for example, and if used to treat someone with an ulcer is going to provide false confidence and bad advice. That doesn’t mean all record of it should be expunged from human memory, but the wrong information belongs in a historical footnote, not the classroom, for obvious reasons. We want our medical science to adapt and evolve, because that’s what movement forward looks like. That means we don’t need enough copies of that old textbook to fill all the medical school lockers, and a few slowly ageing in an archive somewhere are sufficient. Similarly, Men Kampf is an important historical document, a glimpse into the ideology of a brutal fascist responsible for millions of deaths and thus a useful cautionary tale. It belongs in the library, but of course it shouldn’t be glorified.
Since there are only so many shelves, and new books I want to read continue to be written, a cycle occurs with old books that have lost their lustre making way for new and livelier editions. Some books I’m ready to let go of get gifted to people whom I hope will delight in them. A few might turn out to have special value and merit a call to a book seller or an eBay auction to see if it might help buy dinner. Some are destined for a box on the curb with a free to good home sign on a sunny weekend, donation to a local thrift store, or one of my town’s wonderful little free libraries. It was at the free book exchange at the local coop where I buy my groceries that the trouble started.
When I donate books, I also scan the shelves for books I want to read. There’s often something I’ll be curious about, and if I start into it and it doesn’t grab me I can always bring it back the next time the fridge starts to look bare. There are authors I love whose name will always make my heart leap when I spot a title of theirs that I lack. There will also be books I’m indifferent to, that I’d surely never read, but might be valued by different eyes. I love the way that that works. But once in a while among them there will be a book that stands out because of the intellectual or moral revulsion I feel upon seeing it. There are bad books that do bad things and that don’t do our civilization any favours by being shared around. They repel me. One day in autumn, I decided to do something about it.
In 1927, a man named William Edward Hickman kidnapped a twelve year old girl. It was only after her father agreed to pay a ransom that he killed her, and immediately after collecting the money Hickman pushed her dismembered corpse out of his car onto the sidewalk in front of her horrified dad’s eyes. This brutal true crime story shocked a nation, but among all of the aghast citizens reading about it was one woman who thought this totally unapologetic sociopath was “the ideal man,” declaring his words of pitiless selfishness “the best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I ever heard.” She crushed on him so badly that she decided to model the protagonist of the book she was writing after him. Her pen name was Ayn Rand. She went on to write a number of truly awful books about men who absolutely don’t give a crap about anyone else, ever. They are poster children for monomaniacally self interested narcissism. The “hero” of the Fountainhead ranges from committing violent rape to blowing up a housing project with dynamite out of spite.
Her philosophy extolling unchecked greed and egotism, particularly as spread by her acolyte Milton Friedman, played a large role in modern corporations being designed by law to behave like clinical psychopaths that absolutely couldn’t care less about the survival of you or the planet. It’s hard to overstate how large a role she played in making the US the orgy of self destructive selfishness we see today. It doesn’t really matter that science firmly proves her wrong about the value of altruism. As long as her greed-is-good philosophy remains appealing to the greedy, people will still keep holding her vile work up as an example to emulate, even though trying to put her principles into practice reliably turns into a godawful mess, and wholeheartedly embracing her work is an excellent way to self destruct your business.
So even though it seemed innocuous on the shelf, I felt that in good conscience it just wouldn’t be right to leave her book lying there. Who knows what vulnerable mind the poisonous thing might find opportunity to infect. I took it home. The same way I’d remove a box of rat poison if I saw one sitting on a restaurant’s buffet table between the coleslaw and the macaroni salad. It felt like a public service.
Then I had to figure out what to do with it. I wouldn’t regift it any more than I would pass along a paper bag of flaming dog crap found on a front stoop, but I also didn’t want it taking up valuable space in my beloved library, a sinister little bundle of malice devised for encouraging bad behaviour in assholes. It could serve a purpose, but seemingly only a malevolent one.
Conveniently, the library has more than just a bunch of books. There are some musical instruments and artworks on display, and comfy seating suitable for a ceilidh or other cozy celebration. There’s a big comfy couch that’s excellent for cuddling up with my sweetheart and reading aloud together, and it’s next to the wood stove which makes it an exquisite place to linger during the coldest depths of winter. Starting a fire in the wood stove commonly involves some kindling, some paper, and a match.
And so began the book burning. Only a couple of pages at a time. It felt cathartic to tear out the first page. A sense of sacrilege from damaging a book wore off quickly. It rapidly became sacrilicious. Occasionally I would note something vile in the text as I tore it out. Goodbye rape scene. Goodbye casual disregard for human decency. Goodbye, childish tantrum of wealthy sociopath. As each blaze leapt to life, something awful was transformed into something useful. The darkness of a book that’s brought a lot of harm to our world gave way to a cheery warmth that our cats happily curled up in front of. As the snow piled up and the days grew short, one copy of one bad book crackled progressively into nonexistence, leaving the world no poorer. Eventually, the last sentence vanished, and it was done. I was a book burner. I was surprisingly okay with it.
Successful cultures evolve. They move forward. Nothing is learned by debunking the same tired arguments for the millionth time, and that’s essentially where we are currently stuck. Voluminous rebuttals already exist in plenitude. The last fifty years of corporate tax cuts have proven quite conclusively that trickle down economics isn’t a magic bullet for job creation, so we don’t need yet more praise of it. It’s not a matter of subjective moral judgement. History has already answered questions like “is fascism a success strategy?” Covid is an object lesson on why Ayn Rand’s “me first, greed is good and other people don’t matter” philosophy is a death wish for the national interest as her acolytes keep undermining public health efforts and adding to the body count.
Endlessly retreading the marketplace of stale ideas is preventing us from having the public conversations that we need. Every hour wasted on more climate denial is one that doesn’t get invested in addressing its reality. Pretending that everything from obvious lies to incitement to stochastic terrorism is precious free speech produces a steady barrage of self inflicted wounds in our communities.
The kids who will inherit the world will be very, very lucky if they have the luxury to debate history, but their primary takeaway from history will very definitely be that the last generation that could have prevented them from living in a brutal hothouse hellscape of violent scarcity for the next several millennia spent more time and energy protecting selfishness, dishonesty, and endlessly disproven ideas than we did protecting the future of our entire species.
Retreading the same questions isn’t learning. Absorbing the answers to those questions and moving on to the next questions is. I vote we learn.
So was I done? Was this uncharacteristic episode an anomaly to be quickly forgotten and never spoken of? Certainly, I feel no animosity towards the library in general, and still find something personally precious in the feel of paper pages and glossy covers. With spring arriving, the wood stove will sit idle for many months to come, and I won’t be crumpling up any sort of pages anyway. But just yesterday I made another rare pandemic trip out of the house to refill the pantry, and of course I looked at the books. I can’t not look at the books.
And lo and behold, alongside the treasure of a Linda McQuaig volume that I didn’t already have, which will make a proud addition to our politics and public affairs shelf, what unlikely books drew my attention? Two expensively produced tomes of effort at making climate change denial seem credible, written by fossil funded science quislings to defraud the gullible. I wouldn’t personally destroy the last copies of such a thing because they’re still evidence — of the sort that should be used to prosecute the authors for crimes against humanity because this particular pernicious set of lies has a growing body count — but there’s no conceivable way that this obvious misinformation would grow anything useful in the understanding of whoever else might pick them up. And then I realized that the list inside my head of books to look for had divided itself into two lists. Books that celebrate and enrich the human condition and expand our knowledge or thinking skills belong in column A, and those which mistakenly or maliciously plant seeds of ignorance and needless misery in the culture we inhabit go in column B. Maybe next time someone will drop a screed on why only abstinence education is the cure for teen pregnancy, or that it’s totally a great idea to beat your kids, and I won’t hesitate to seize those ones, too. Because there is a special place for them in my library after all: the temporary shelf to the left of the kindling box.