“Manifesto,” the poem that launched Banned Book Week 2010, was written by banned author Ellen Hopkins. As a perspicacious undergraduate I know pointed out, each stanza of this poem addresses an aspect of that strange cultural fear known as Banned Book Week. Her line, “false patriots who live in fear of discourse,” in stanza one makes me tremble each time. You see, it is easy to believe that censorship applies only to Nazis goose-stepping around bonfires with books flying through the air like a Steven Spielberg movie, or even, more recently, The Book Thief (the book is better than the movie), or godless Communists. That fear, however, travels both forward and backward in time. The Patriot Act has been at work effacing liberty for several years now, and people too fond of fear are unwilling to withdraw it. The world of frightening ideas in which we live, however, is nothing new. Literary artists bring us to uncomfortable places. That’s why we read them.
If we turn history’s pages back to the Nazis, we find ourselves sitting in judgment over their cowardly act of book burning. Those who never read of the phoenix are swift to recreate the myth. But we do history a disservice if we stop there. I was recently reminded that burning books has a biblical precedent. According to Acts 19.19, while Paul was performing miracles in Ephesus, those who were converted brought out their books of magic and burned them, to the approval of the nascent Christian movement. A Bible that advocates the burning of books is ironic, for the Bible itself has been banned in parts of the world. What greater crime against humanity can there be than the deliberate destruction of its own cultural heritage? We don’t believe in magic any more, but we still burn books.
Owen Davies, in his book Grimoires, shows that the practice goes back even further, with Romans burning books of magic as early as 186 B.C.E. There is a perverse symbolism at work here. As someone who admires, but can’t afford, antique books, the thought of ancient documents intentionally destroyed appears as one of the most easily preventable of cultural crimes. Sometimes as I hurry through the Port Authority Bus Terminal to reach my gate, I see the military guards with machine guns and full combat fatigues and I hope that they don’t stop me to search my bag. The only thing I’m carrying is books. Books, however, convey ideas. Banned Book Week reminds us each year that ideas are essential to the life of the mind. They may be burned or banned, but they will live on. The cost, however, may never be fully recovered by the society that permits its ideas to be incinerated.