The long history of book burning
Local and state GOP leaders are mobilizing across the country to ban books, many of which deal with racial politics or the LGBTQ community.
The nonprofit free expression organization Pen America estimated in April that since 2021, more than 1,500 books have been banned in 86 school districts across 26 states.
The censorship efforts have now gained the attention of Congress, which held its second hearing on the issue last week, as well as more than 1,300 children’s book authors who signed a letter to lawmakers warning of a “dehumanizing form of erasure.”
While the bans mark a new trend, there is a long history of trying to erase unpopular or allegedly offensive literature.
History tells us that banning books in certain situations often leads to more drastic efforts to restrict access to them, said Jonathan Friedman, the director of free expression and education at PEN America.
“It’s very clear to anybody involved in this that it always seems to start with just a few books in school, but then all of a sudden we’re talking about not just public schools but public libraries,” Friedman said.
“When you look across the landscape of the country in the past few months, we see a lot of different censorship taking place, and any of them could continue to be mimicked or scaled up,” he continued.
Throwing books into a raging bonfire likely won’t happen in the 21st Century — although one Tennessee lawmaker recently said he would “burn ’em,” when asked what he personally would do with books he objected to.
But Friedman told The Hill that “censorship begets censorship.”
Bills creating state-authorized committees to review and decide on what types of books are stacked on library shelves are already in the pipeline, while censorship also weighs on the country’s writers and impacts the type of work they produce, he added.
Here’s what history tells us about book censorships and the targeted burnings of literary and religious works.
Book burning in the ancient world
Book burning has often been tied to conquest and imperial governing. The first emperor of China orchestrated the first known recorded instance of government-sanctioned book burnings in 213 B.C.
Qin Shi Huang wanted history to begin with him, hence his designation of himself as the first emperor of China despite his known predecessors. Naturally, books offered a competing narrative.
When his chancellor Li Si suggested burning all books except the official history of the Qin state, Shi Huang readily agreed. During his book burning campaign, the emperor also infamously ordered the deaths of hundreds of Confucian scholars, who were buried alive.
The Roman Empire burned up countless books over the course of its long reign. The first emperor, Augustus — objecting to books of “prophesies and destinies” — ordered more than 2,000 books to be reduced to smoke and ashes, according to “Book Burning” by Haig A. Bosmajian.
One of the greatest losses of literature was at the Library of Alexandria, established under Alexander the Great in northern Egypt around 331 BC. The library was burned down at least three times over hundreds of years and is now permanently erased.
At one point, the Library of Alexandria held over half a million documents from multiple nations, including present-day Syria, Greece, Persia, Egypt and India.
The Muslim ruler Caliph Umar took over the city of Alexandria in 640 AD and dealt the library a final blow, reportedly using its contents as tinder for the city’s bathhouses, according to Mid-Content Public Library.
According to some accounts, Umar said the works “either contradict the Qur’an, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.”
Book burning in the post-Roman Empire
Religion played a major role in some of the largest book burning events after the Roman Empire began to decline around 500 AD.
In the late 15th century, the Italian and Dominican preacher and religious reformist Girolamo Savonarola helped drive the Medici family out of the city of Florence and established a new government.
In what became known as a “bonfire of the vanities,” Savonarola oversaw a literal bonfire containing books, pictures, jewelry, clothing, paintings and anything else he collected from residents of the city and found objectionable.
The Catholic Church organized numerous book burnings throughout the medieval period. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX ordered the burning of the Jewish theological work The Talmud along with “those books in which you find errors of this sort you shall cause to be burned at the stake,” according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
As a consequence of the order, 24 wagonloads containing thousands of volumes were burned in France in 1242.
Works of religion were frequent targets by the Catholic Church. Holy Roman Emperor Charles V joined others in burning and censoring works from the theologian Martin Luther, whose teachings paved the way for Protestantism.
Other book burning or censorship campaigns were waged by Pope John XXII, Pope Adrian VI and King Henry VIII, among many other leaders during the medieval period who targeted literature and religious works they disagreed with.
Book burning and censorship in the modern world
As the world entered the 20th century, book burning was largely frowned upon. But plenty of instances of mass censorship and the permanent erasure of works still occurred.
Nazi Germany’s incineration of 25,000 “un-German” works on May 10, 1933, is perhaps the most infamous book burning event because photos and videos of the event can still be seen today.
Mao Zedong, the Communist leader in China, burned works and books during his Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and ’70s, a campaign of censorship continued by the current Chinese government. In 2002, Radio Free Asia reported that thousands of books from the predominately Muslim Uyghur ethnic minority were burned. The Uyghurs continue to be subjected to detention camps in Xinjiang today.
A Sinhalese Buddhist mob torched 95,000 volumes from the Jaffna Public Library in Sri Lanka in 1981.
From 1955 to 1971, thousands of books and works were burned by the South African government during apartheid, according to the University of Pretoria.
Major book burning events have occurred in the past two decades as well.
In Bosnia, 2 million books were said to have been burned by Serbian nationalists in 1992. In Timbuktu, Mali, ancient writings were put to the flame in 2013 by Islamist fighters.
And the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria burned down the Mosul University library in Iraq around 2015.
Censorship campaigns in the U.S.
The U.S. has struggled with censorship before. J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” series has long been targeted for supposedly promoting witchcraft. Kurt Vonnegut’s science fiction novel “Slaughterhouse Five,” the Qur’an and even records from The Beatles have also been burned and banned by individual actors or groups.
But the number of book bans in the U.S. today is unprecedented, said Friedman from Pen America. The researcher said since his April report, at least 200 more books have been banned in states across the country.
“There are lists of books being shared around the country and communities of people are being encouraged to ban those lists,” Friedman said. “I think those lists are more extensive than anything we’ve seen before.”
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