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Last Updated on August 5, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 354


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One of the themes of "Burning A Book" by William Stafford is the historical and controversial topic of censorship. For example, book burning has a long history; it usually happens as a result of people being offended by the political, social, or personal philosophies and ideologies presented in certain books.

Stafford seems to look at both sides of the issue: he elaborates on the benefits and consequences of embracing the act of book burning. For example, he states that truth is lost when books are destroyed, but, on the other side, lies are destroyed as well. This can be seen when he says that "truth, brittle and faint, burns easily, its fire as hot as the fire lies make."

The Value of Knowledge and Education

The second theme that Stafford addresses is the issue of the value of knowledge and education. Stafford seems to believe that even worse than writing a book filled with lies or inaccuracies is the dwindling amount of writing in the world today.

Writing carries new ideas, spurs higher thought, and allows people to question issues in the world. Looking at ideas opposite to our own allows us to see other perspectives and better defend our own views. On the other hand, we may also read books that we do not agree with at first and end up altering our initial perceptions of a subject. Reading books allows people to reach a deeper understanding of humanity as a whole, and the new ideas imparted through reading may possibly spur growth and truth in many ways.

For example, books have a history of articulating protests against many human tragedies (such as slavery, sexism, and oppression in general) and have, in doing so, changed the course of history. The tragedy is that, when books are not written, advancement is limited and widespread ignorance is the result.

Thus, even though he does comment that some books deserve to burn, Stafford's overall message is that the greater evil is not writing books at all. Stafford's poem implies that knowledge is power, and in a world without books we are weaker and more prone to stagnation.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 423

“Burning a Book” is a poem about taking risks—specifically, taking risks in writing. Stafford has always admired, and practiced in his own writing, the quixotic approach of plunging into the unknown. He maintains that no subject, as long as it involves the heart and intuition of the writer, is too small to write about. As Stafford himself says, “[L]ike Don Quixote you must expect some disasters. You must write your bad poems.” (Perhaps one must write some poems worthy of nothing better than “burning.”) Not to write intuitively, on impulse, is “to guarantee that you will not find the unknown, the risky.”

Following a creative impulse may lead to something worthwhile or it may lead to windmills in the sky, but one thing is certain in the poem: Neither truth nor lies will be found without the attempt. Stafford’s sense of irony admits that “Truth, brittle and faint, burns easily,/ its fire as hot as the fire lies make,” and his wisdom says that if neither is accessible, there is no way to distinguish between truth and lies.

Although book burning is conventionally associated with ignorance, in his usual attitude of openness to both sides of an issue, Stafford observes that, ironically, ignorance dances equally well in the absence of fire. He takes a wry look at the whole concept. Where there are books being burned, there is something with which to disagree; there is knowledge, however faulty. To be judged unworthy, a book must be read and must be written in the first place. How could book burning itself be deemed repressive without the words that can expose its dangers?

The reader is invited to risk being fallible. The imaginative space of the poem includes writer and reader alike. “You” and “I” are almost equated, for the participation of the reader is required if one is to find the words in the ashes. When the poet admits figuratively to burning books that no doubt meet the criterion “trying for character/ but just faking it,” he is quite possibly talking about some of his own writing. The tone is finally optimistic as he casually shrugs at his own failures (and perhaps at his critics) and looks forward to the endless possibilities of discovery.

Stafford is one of the most prolific of American poets. In his view, even the most ordinary ideas are worth examining and exploring. “Burning a Book” exemplifies his deep-rooted beliefs about writing; his words are designed to rekindle vigor and excitement in exploring the boundaries of thought.