Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 374
"Burning a Book" is a poem by William Stafford that explores the ideas of censorship, destruction, and missed opportunities. Stafford claims in his poem that he has burned many books, but the idea is misleading. We'll take a few quotes from the text to explore what he means in his poem.
Truth, brittle and faint, burns easily, its fire as hot as the fires lies make.
This quote is exploring the idea of lying and of destroying the truth—not necessarily actually burning a book. He states in this line that, as he has watched books burn, truths burn very easily (meaning they are very easy to get rid of), but when that is done, the burning truths can create as much heat and pain as lies can. Here, he argues that censorship for telling lies is easy—because truths are hard and inconvenient sometimes—but doing so is dangerous because censoring it is as destructive as simply lying.
More disturbing than book ashes are whole libraries that no one got around to writing.
This is an example of his sense of missed opportunities. There are so many writers and individuals in this world who fail to tell their story or offer their truth, which is more disheartening and heartbreaking than the burnt books. Stafford is saying in this quote that, while burning books and destroying works is painful, worse still is not having anything written in the first place. The libraries full of books never written are an example of missed opportunities and failed dreams.
So I've burned books. And there are many I haven't even written, and nobody has.
The final line is a poignant reminder of the personal responsibility of censorship and missed chances. He points to himself in the end; he says that he has burned books, meaning that he's told lies and rewritten history when it's been convenient for himself. Worse still, he says that he has also failed to take the chances he's been presented with. He has left many books unwritten, which deprives the world of a story or his own life of an opportunity that he could have taken to improve himself or the lives of others around him. And for that reason, he is forlorn.
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