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Last Updated on August 6, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 338

"Burning a Book" is a poem by William Stafford, who was Poet Laureate in 1970. It's a poem about censorship and the absence of thought.

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This poem doesn't have characters in an obvious sense. You could say the types of books described in the poem are characters, or you could talk about the characters of authors and book-burners.

The Books

First, let's take a look at some of the types of books mentioned throughout the poem. In the first stanza, Stafford says that truth and lies burn just as hot. There are books that are burned because their contents tell dangerous truths or lies (censorship). There are other books that are burned because they lack valuable content. It's believed that Stafford wrote this poem after burning a book that he found shallow. The line in the poem is:

And some books ought to burn, trying for character/ but just faking it.

Finally, the third type of book mentioned in "Burning a Book" is the unwritten book. Stafford is suggesting that leaving stories and ideas unwritten is just as much a form of censorship as burning books.

The Author

The author is also a character in the poem. The author, in the end of the poem, is the writer who fails to write a book. Stafford includes himself here, acknowledging that there are many books yet to be written and that he hasn't written all the books he could write.

The Reader and the Book-Burner

In some ways, you could also say that the reader is a character in this poem. Though he doesn't say it explicitly, there's an implication that books are also censored if no one reads them, even if they were written.

The reader and the book-burner might be the same person. The reader may decide, after reading, that a book was untrue or that they did not want to hear the truths of the book. They may decide that a book simply lacks character and depth and is not worth sharing with other readers but should, instead, be burned.

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