Last Updated September 5, 2023.
The Nuance of Censorship
Book burning has a long, controversial history and, by extension, carries a slew of well-earned negative associations. The intentional destruction of works of literature usually occurs when a group is offended by some aspect of a book's social, political, or personal philosophies and ideologies. Feeling threatened by the presence of viewpoints they view as reprehensible, they destroy them, limiting public access to other perspectives and ideas. At its core, book burning is an act born of an autocratic desire for control and silence; for the speaker to not only willingly admit to book burning but laud its merits is jarring and unexpected.
The speaker evaluates both sides of the issue, elaborating on the benefits and consequences of embracing the act of book burning. Readers are stunned by his open-mindedness and marvel at his pragmatic assessment of literary merit. The claim that “some books ought to burn” because they fall short, dealing in false character in lies, is shocking but also compelling. Indeed, Stafford’s poem revises conventional narratives about censorship as an entirely negative effort and asks if the destructive of bad, disingenuous, or false works is a crime. Although the truth may be lost when books are destroyed, so are lies. It is an oddly compelling argument that undermines the supposition of literature’s inherent merit. Not every book is worthy of protection; not every work is sacrosanct. To pretend otherwise is folly. Censorship has inhibited authors from writing important books that now no one can ever read; indeed, is it so horrible for works with no merit or value to burn when authors whose voices must be heard are stifled or lost forever?
The Importance of the Written Word
Paradoxically, “Burning a Book” questions the assumed immorality of burning books while mourning the lack of worthy writing being done in the modern day. In short, the speaker dismisses critics of book burning, all the while begging for authors to write more genuine and important works. At its core, the poem is an elegy for writing as it was; the speaker argues that so many books have little to say. Valuable work, he explains, is dwindling. Where once literature abounded, today’s writers have lost their way. The key to this problem may perhaps lie in book burning; if today’s readers are only exposed to works that lack soul and character, they will never know anything else. If such works are burnt, leaving only those books that are valuable, perhaps the libraries “that no one got around to writing” will fill, and, perhaps, they will fill with meritorious work that the speaker finds up to par.
Reading and writing are the basic education by which people learn to understand and question the world around them. In doing so, they are exposed to new ideas and perspectives, which teach them to see with an open mind and defend themselves logically. Reading books allows people to reach a deeper understanding of humanity as a whole, and the new ideas imparted through reading may spur growth and truth in many ways. The tragedy is that, when books are not written, advancement is limited and widespread ignorance is the result. Moreover, the speaker argues that when truthful and useful books are not written, the same results occur. Thus, even though he does comment that some books deserve to burn, the speaker’s overall message is that the greater evil is not writing books at all. Stafford's poem implies that knowledge is power, and a world without books is weaker and more prone to stagnation.