William Stafford suggests in “Book Burning” that the actual object that is a book is not as significant as the content it represents. While he is by no means advocating the destruction of the physical object, he raises the issue of intellectual freedom as the central principle that should be defended. The absence of books that have not yet been written seems to Stafford at least as important as abolishing those already written. The suppression of free expression hinders intellectual freedom, discouraging people not only from speaking, writing, and performing but even from thinking. Such an environment, the poet indicates metaphorically, becomes the domain of “wild dogs.”
Stafford’s position can be related to numerous historical examples that demonstrate the dangers of censorship, including actual book burnings. Within recent history, the German Nazi regime often conducted public book burnings in which texts deemed to be “un-German.” Their efforts at censorship were not limited to physical destruction, however; art works were decried as immoral, art schools such as the Bauhaus were shut down, and artists and writers fled into exile.
Two fictional examples that draw on these ideas are Ray Bradbury’s 1961 novel, Fahrenheit 451, in which individuals assume the responsibility of remembering and orally transmitting the contents of the destroyed books. In Markus Zusak’s novel The Book Thief, Nazi book burning provides the impetus for a child to rescue books from the fire; in turn, her passion for reading is connected with the continuity of suppressed ideas under dictatorship.