Book Burning At Issue

At Issue

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Books are often burned on the grounds that they contain subversive political or religious ideas, or include language and material not appropriate for young readers. Governments and organizations wishing to repress certain thoughts and ideas have faced a problem in censoring material that already has been printed. One solution has been the physical destruction of the printed matter, usually by fire. Books have also been deliberately ruined by water. The public burning of books often does more than merely destroy unwanted material, however, it can serve as an impressive expression of the power of the state, and as a unifying and exciting experience for the crowds that participate in the burnings.

Records of book burning date back thousand of years. Unhappy with the prophecies of Jeremiah, King Jehoiakim burned the first book of the prophet in 605 b.c.e. Jeremiah promptly rewrote the book. Another instance of mass book burning occurred in the third century b.c.e. in China. The first emperor of the Ts’in Dynasty ordered the works of Confucius destroyed. Less than thirty years later, the Emperor Shih huang-ti ordered all printed works in his empire destroyed except for those containing practical information, which would be housed in the Imperial Library. He hoped that the destruction of historical records would hamper the efforts of contenders to the throne. Although neither emperor was completely successful in his efforts, the possibility of losing the works of Confucius so frightened later Chinese rulers that they ordered the philosopher’s works carved on enormous stone tablets, impervious to flame.