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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Ironically, William Stafford’s poem “Burning a Book” describes the destruction of a medium he employs to communicate his ideas. In describing the necessary destruction of unworthy literature, Stafford explores—and, due to the inflammatory nature of his claim, forces the reader to explore—the meaning of censorship and suppression. The speaker writes that he has burned many books, but his claim is misleading. Rather than physically burning a book, he explains that what he has done is burned the truth, an equally destructive but less visible act. 

Truth, brittle and faint, burns easily,

its fire as hot as the fires lies make.

This quote discusses the idea of lying and of destroying the truth, which appears to cause more damage than the destruction of the book itself. Essentially, the speaker explains that when one watches a book burn, one sees the erosion of truth. Both elements—the physical and the abstract—burn easily and quickly. However, just as the pages fuel the fire, creating heat, so does the truth. When burned, he explains, the truth creates just as much heat and pain as lies do. Here, he argues that censorship for telling lies is easy—because the truth is 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 what the speaker finds tragic. So many writers and individuals in this world face circumstances that inhibit them from telling their stories or offering their truth. Indeed, their lost, untold tales are more disheartening and heartbreaking than burnt books. 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, losses inhibited by the very censorship and oppression that often leads to burning. 

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, telling readers that he is culpable, that he has burned books, told lies, and rewritten history when doing so has been convenient for himself. Worse still, he says he has also failed to take the chances presented to him. Like those silent authors and their unpublished books, he, too, 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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