What is the message of the poem "Burning a Book"  by William Stafford?

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The poem "Burning a Book" by William Stafford contains two important interrelated messages. The first has to do with the physical act of book burning, which has been perpetrated for thousands of years as a means of curtailing undesired opinions and inconvenient facts. As far back as 213 B.C., Qin Shi Huang, a Chinese emperor, ordered books to be burned as a method of bringing the thoughts of the citizenry under governmental control. In the distant past, this was easier to accomplish, as all books were hand-written and copied. The situation changed with the invention of the printing press in 1440. With Gutenberg's invention came an exponential increase in literacy, and the thoughts found in books were much more easily disseminated to many more people. This did not stop governments in their attempts to control populations through censorship.

A recent example, of course, is the horrific destruction of books by the Nazi Party. This campaign sought to crush ideologies opposed to the Nazis such as Judaism, communism, socialism, and pacifism. Because books contain not only cloth and paper but also thoughts, ideas, and information, for some despotic regimes, the burning of books that are contrary to their accepted ideology carries great symbolic value. Stafford alludes to the burning of physical books in the first part of his poem.

However, the second part of Stafford's poem deals with another insidious form of censorship: books that remain unwritten in societies that are unwilling to accept fresh thoughts. Stafford spoke of this in an interview in 1991. He said that writers become more concerned with numbers of sales and literary honors, and creativity suffers as a result: "An artist has to to operate from an inner compass. It is not art when it is drawn by the numbers, when it's Hallmark cards for the market." He goes on to emphasize: "Anything that guides you toward not doing it your way is eroding the compass or whatever you use as an artist." This form of self-censorship due to public opinion is what Stafford is referring to in the poem when he writes: "If a book isn't written, no one needs to burn it—ignorance can dance in the absence of fire." Stafford is lamenting the books that are never written due to timidity or fear.

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The idea of book-burning is one usually associated with censorship and acts contravening freedom of speech, a practice most closely associated with the Nazis, who burned anything they felt was ideologically impure. This poem is interesting in that its viewpoint is quite different from what the title might suggest. Some books, the speaker states directly, "deserve to burn." What is up for discussion is how far we ought to feel sympathy for the speaker's provocative viewpoint.

In the first stanza, the speaker describes the image of a book being burned and mentions that truth can be "brittle" and easily destroyed—preserved for a time while the fire rages but ultimately consumed. This is a troubling image and runs contrary to the more frequently cited statement that one cannot destroy an idea.

The second stanza, however, sheds some light on the speaker's meaning. His concern here is that many books have been written that do not deserve to be written—again, an issue worthy of debate. But what the speaker highlights is that so much has gone unwritten, and this has allowed ignorance to grow unchecked—when a book is burned, it draws attention to the truth it contained, whether or not that truth is ultimately defeated.

This is a difficult and thought-provoking poem about censorship, truth, and the worthiness of ideas.

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The message of this poem is the damage that ignorance inflicts on the world. While the poet begins with the image of burning books, in the second stanza he writes, "More disturbing than book ashes are whole libraries that no one got around to writing." The destruction of knowledge is dangerous, but the poet states that some books deserve to be burned because they are impostors. However, even more destructive than burning books is the situation in which books that ought to have been written simply never were. The poet compares this situation to towns that exist in desolation in a state of what he calls "unthought." He states that ignorance can exist without burning if no one even bothers to write a book in the first place. In this sense, ignorance is deceptive; burning books seems like the ultimate way to destroy knowledge until one thinks about all the things that have not been written, resulting in widespread ignorance. 

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