Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 2, 2017

On the Burning of Books (2016), by Kenneth Baker

‘There are many of the forces of nature which tend to injure books; but among them all not one has been half so destructive as fire … chance conflagrations, fanatic incendiarism, judicial bonfires, and even household stoves, time after time, have thinned the treasures as well as the rubbish of past ages’.  (William Blades, 1880, from the back cover)

On the Burning of Books was a chance discovery at the library and it’s quite an interesting book.

It’s divided into sections:

  • Foreword
  • Political Burning
  • Religious Burning
  • War Burning
  • Personal Burning
  • Accidental Burning
  • Royal Burning
  • Lucky Escapes, and
  • an Epilogue.

The sections on political and religious burning cite examples familiar to us such as the Bonfire of the Vanities, and burnings by Italian and Spanish Fascists and the Nazis in 1930s, (and see this art installation ‘Parthenon of Books’ symbolising the event) and of course the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976 – but there are also ancient examples such as the burning of books in China in 213 BC in an attempt by the emperor Qin to eliminate the collective memory, the history and traditions of his subject states.  Qin was especially keen to stamp out the works of Confucius, and to make sure, he also killed 460 scholars, a feat that Mao Tse Tung was proud to surpass with his boast that by burying 46,000 scholars, he had surpassed Qin Shi Huang by a hundred fold.  In 1519, the Spanish also burnt books of the Aztec civilisation in Mexico for the same reason.

Books were burned in the Peasants Revolt in England in 1381, and later, English writers who were singled out for attention included Ben Jonson (1572-1637) and John Milton (1608-1674).   Between 1661 and 1710 some books – about twenty, according to the former librarian of the House of Lords Library – were designated for special disapproval by having them burnt by the public hangman.  And not all burnings were long ago: copies of The Times and The Daily Mail were burnt in 1915 for having the temerity to insult the national hero Lord Kitchener.

The Americans took up book burning along with independence in 1776, possibly also tarring and feathering Samuel Louder, the merchant printer who produced a pamphlet that was disliked by radical leaders opposed to the colonial government.  They also targeted Jemmy Rivington, the editor of the New York Gazette, prompting the author of this book to comment that there was no room for dissent in the land of the brave and the free. 

More recently, American authorities in Germany and Austria handed over to the Red Army in 1947 1500 translated copies of Orwell’s Animal Farm because, ironically, they thought it was propaganda printed on an illegal press.  But there is no irony in the burning of 2004 The Hutton Report which was a whitewash of Blair’s justification for the Iraq War and the suicide of David Kelly, the UN weapons inspector who was involved…

But most book burnings take place in repressive regimes, whether political or religious.  Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) burned some of his MS because he feared Stalin, while the poem Epitaphios by Yiannis Ritsos (1909-1990) was burnt by the Greek dictator Ionnis Metaxas in 1936 because he didn’t like its message of social justice.  The Crusades (1209-45) are notorious for destroying the entire written record of Catharism, not to mention massacring entire populations in France because they were thought to be heretics, and then there was the Spanish Inquisition from 1478 to as late as 1834 which – amongst other atrocities – disposed of all Hebrew and Lutheran books and anything Moorish.  (The Lutherans got their revenge by burning a Papal Bull in 1520).  Tyndale’s English translation of the Bible was burnt in 1536 and in 1553 when Mary Tudor got the throne that she thought was her God-given right, she set about hunting down nonconformists, gospellers and conventiclers and she burnt anyone obstinate about returning to the Catholic faith along with the Edwardine prayer book.  All these burnings were all the more effective because the printing press was yet to be invented and there were so few copies available of books.  Still, later burnings were still effective:  in 1764 Voltaire’s critique of the Catholic Church, ‘Dictionaire philosophique portatif’ (portable Philosophical Dictionary) was burnt publicly  in several European capitals, starting with Paris.  (Of course, these burnings need to be public, that’s the whole point.)

BTW In this lavishly illustrated book, the page about Voltaire has a beautiful reproduction of a piece of porcelain depicting him with Frederick II of Prussia.  I am sorely tempted to copy it here because it’s by an unknown old master, but I’d better not because I can’t tell from the picture credits which museum it’s in, click here to see how exquisite it is instead.)

In more recent, thought to be more enlightened times, Thomas Hardy received a parcel from America containing the ashes of Jude the Obscure and the local Bishop of Wakefield burnt his copy too.  HG Wells was the first author to be subject to Muslim protest in Britain to protect the Prophet’s name in 1922, and we all know about what happened with Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, (1989) which resulted not just in book burning but several murders as well.  There have been tit-for-tat burnings all over the place with the Koran, always resulting in violence against people as well.

But the Irish Catholic Church was still busy in the 20th century, destroying James Joyce’s Dubliners (really??) in 1914 and Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls in 1960.   And much to the astonishment of most of the civilised world. Harry Potter books were burnt in 2001 at a church in New Mexico by a pastor who hadn’t read them but thought they were an abomination anyway.

I have barely scratched the surface of this most interesting book and I haven’t even started on the books and libraries destroyed by accident, design or straight out vengeance in war.  Baker is especially critical of Rumsfield after the looting of Baghdad which resulted in the loss of many treasures which we all saw on TV in 2003, but he also lacerates the vindictive Nazi retreats.  (I have seen photos of some of their pointless destruction when they knew they’d lost the war, it pales into insignificance beside their other war crimes, but it’s still shocking when you see what they did).  But the chapter on personal burning, when authors deliberately destroy letters and papers, incriminating diaries and dud books that they wrote is interesting too, and it makes you wonder what might have been.  The accidental burnings are even more depressing: books from the ancient world, a maid burning the manuscript of Thomas Carlyle’s The Bastille because she thought it was waste paper, and the archives of the Houses of Parliament in London in 1834.

BTW My reading of this book coincides with news that Terry Pratchett left instructions for his unfinished novels to be despatched by steamroller!

If you love books, you will surely enjoy this one…

Author: Kenneth Baker
Title: On the Burning of Books, How flames fail to destroy the written word
Publisher: Unicorn, 2016
ISBN: 9781910787113
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word


  1. Fascinating, though depressing reading, but you miss the burning of the Library at Alexandria. But it will go on, I’m sure someone, somewhere today is burning accounts of sex, evolution, the religion they don’t believe in, inconvenient accounts of power …


    • No, Baker does mention it and at some length. There’s just so many instances, I couldn’t include them all.
      As bad as burning IMO is the wanton destruction of libraries by penny-pinchers. I believe it’s happening all over America and the UK, but I think we’ve largely escaped the closing down of municipal libraries. But what people mostly don’t know about is the demise of school libraries – the one place where they are essential and proven by research to be critical for literacy. Some schools are literally not having any books at all in favour of eBooks (the Gustav Nossal selective school is one of these and I know of primary schools that are the same) while others maintain a room with some books in it but no librarian to select quality books to put in it, to read stories to the children or to help them find a book they’d like to read. And then they wonder why their literacy results are poor…


      • I hadn’t thought about the attrition of our libraries. We let our governments “save” money in the stupidest places!


        • We had to fight a major battle here in Victoria when Jeff Kennett wanted to close libraries down. The idea was that we would browse the catalogue and order books online. I can’t remember the plan for getting the books out of the warehouse and into the reader’s hands…
          But, and this is the amazing thing because as you probably know, Kennett ignored every other protest and closed down schools, hospitals, community centres, you name it he closed it, but the protests about libraries were heeded and we still have them today.


  2. And there was the burning of the draft Murray-Darling basin plan in Griffith NSW by protesting citrus growers unhappy at their proposed water allocation.


    • Ah yes, I remember that! It had the wrong effect on me, it just made me feel sorry for the growers further south in SA…


  3. Sounds fascinating indeed although I don’t know if I could bring myself to read it – just thinking about the burning of books makes me twitch…


  4. […] On the Burning of Books, by Kenneth Baker […]


  5. […] an impulse loan from the library.  I’d heard a lot about the Nazi theft of artworks and their burning of books, but I knew nothing about the systematic theft of […]


  6. […] an impulse loan from the library.  I’d heard a lot about the Nazi theft of artworks and their burning of books, but I knew nothing about the systematic theft of […]


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