The Burning of Books

I burn books, which puts me in uncomfortable company. However, the books I burn I have found too objectionable to pass on. They are my possessions; I can do with them as I see fit.

I burn books. 

I put another book on the burn pile today. I do not burn many, but there is a small stack by my fireplace waiting for the coming winter. 

You might be horrified hearing this. After all, in my younger years, we were regularly shown scary film clips of Nazis burning books and endlessly raising arms in salute. We were unironically told it was a form of propaganda—destroying others’ propaganda—to whip up the masses. We were told they were attacking civilization. 

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One dictionary defines book burning as destruction of writing regarded as harmful or subversive. Burning a book also may be a symbolic act of rejection of that particular book or of the author himself. I think of the books in my burn pile as trash. The same dictionary defines trash as “things no longer useful” but also “inferior or worthless writing.” If I find a book inferior, I treat it as trash. 

What makes this wrong in the minds of many?

Besides stories of Nazi book burnings, they may recall stories of preachers burning books, along with phonograph records and copies of National Geographic. These were usually told as a warning against religious fervor. Others may recall communist takeovers where book burning accompanied summary executions and reeducation camps.

St. Thomas Aquinas attempted to burn his works after receiving a vision. Evidently, he found them no longer useful. Fortunately, he was dissuaded. In the 1400s, a priest named Savonarola encouraged asceticism and preached against the worldly lives of the Florentines. Zealous followers staged book burnings. Savonarola himself was burned for heresy. Caliph Omar is said to have burned the great library at Alexandria in the 600s, purportedly claiming at the time that its venerated scrolls and tomes “either contradict the Koran, in which case they are heresy, or they will agree with it, so they are superfluous.” 

Burnt books are not where the action is today. Now we see people, groups, and countries “cancelled” or banned. Wrong speech is expunged from forums and public gatherings. Sports figures are denied entry in contests. Enormous power is wielded to burn history, news, and ideas. 

Yet, many who in the past shouted “never again” to book burning are applauding. What changed? The answer is: those in charge. 

Libertines and anti-Christians have for generations condemned burning books. They claimed all ideas should be heard, especially theirs. These were their ascending years. Now in power, the same quarters of society are not only vigorously expunging opposing ideas but demanding the extinction of those who hold them. Certainly, not all the worldly have taken the most extreme position, but the standard has moved significantly. 

There is now a systematic, global effort—and tools available—to limit knowledge and form patterns of thought in lockstep with the whims and weirdness of the day. This is especially effective as so much of the written word and images are ephemera in computers, easily blocked or erased.

All this seems to put me in uncomfortable company. However, the books I burn I have found too objectionable to pass on. They are my possessions; I can do with them as I see fit. Just as the householder in Matthew told the grumbling laborer that he was free to be generous, I am free to withhold. I am not burning every bad book, every copy of a particular book, or even preventing someone from getting his own copy. That, I cannot control. 

What I can control is passing my copy to someone else. Doing so without instruction is as dangerous as scandalous words or equivocal behavior before children. We acknowledge these latter acts as sin. So should we the former.

Are those who censor inherently wrong? The answer is no! There is no universal imperative against censorship, no Church teaching. In fact, there is a long history of Church censorship. 

Church censorship was mainly of heretical or immoral content. Past popes recognized there was a duty to enforce decency and to be specific. For example, the Church promulgated an Index of Prohibited Books. 

Words can be salves to wounds or weapons to inflict them. For this reason, we must guard against the worst ones. Decency forbids foul language and pornographic speech. Slander and libel can be punished in secular society. Blasphemy should not be spoken or written except as an example to be refuted. Clearly, communicated words can and ought to have prudential control. 

What the Church also understood through the centuries was that censorship was not just the suppression of bad ideas but the freeing up of space for good ideas to flourish. The new censors understand this as well. Hence our ongoing intellectual and moral decline as more prurience and illogic fills our libraries and computer screens.

The key to censorship is the intent and judgment of the censor. The door to it hinges on his fortitude.

Consider for a moment had there been a more vigorous effort on the part of clergy and laity to enforce the Church’s direction. I recently burned a book written by a priest in the early 1970s advocating for excessive Mass innovations. It had seen its day, done its damage. My only question was why the previous owner, a theology instructor at a local Jesuit university, had passed it on and not destroyed it. 

Christian society was, and is, simply too cowardly, weak, or—worse—sinful, to more vigorously censor, to burn books. 

Erroneous ideas initially circulated in the peripheries of society, where those who opposed them were unlikely to encounter them. This included the salons of the rich or overeducated. These were the seed ground of error. 

Good people of the day, complacent in their institutions, failed to act. They were either blind to the errors or too lazy to combat them. When ripe, these ideas entered the mainstream. In the most egregious examples, leaders of society or the Church introduced errors. Human nature, being what it is, often welcomed the novelty. Too little was done to combat the change. 

Every age should expect the weeds of error and combat them with more than academic jargon. It is part of the spiritual warfare to which Catholics are called. 

The good news is that a powerful weed killer—Grace—is readily available. It is vices such as willful ignorance or sloth that prevents us from using it. The Grace we receive and the conscience we ought to form from it should goad us into action. This includes the concrete action of not just avoiding error but removing it like the spiritual weed it is. 

There is no reason to allow the censoring of right reason while we live in the filth of bad ideas and the defiling of our Church, country, and civilization. We are awash in error on television screens, teleprompters, and bookshelves. Every good action we take builds up the Kingdom.

Take a first step. Burn a book.

  • Wendell Hull

    Wendell Hull has spent a couple of lives in the military and business. He is on his third life as a homeschooling dad and occasional catechist.

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