Book Burning: The Ultimate Censorship
On this website, we’ll discuss scores of books that have been the objects of censorship all over the world. But we begin with a practice that through the centuries has come to symbolism censorship more than anything else: that of book-burning.
This practice, of lighting a large outdoors bonfire and burning books (and records and pictures) is more about the statement it makes than getting rid of the books. Just as flag-burning is seen as an anti-American statement, burning a book is a way of telling the world that this book is not fit for public consumption.
Wikipedia traces the practice of book-burning back to China’s Quinn Dynasty of the 3rd Century B.C. Originally, book-burnings were mostly conducted by political authorities in order to suppress dissenting views. Such was the case when Quinn ordered all philosophy books from other states burned.
Wikipedia’s claims notwithstanding, we should note that even before Quinn, there is an example of a government-ordered burning found in the pages of the Old Testament. Jeremiah 36 says that Judah’s King Jehoiakim took offense at words of Scriptures and had scrolls that were read in his presence cut into pieces and cast into a fire.
Another notable example, several centuries later, was a book-burning ordered by Theophilus of Alexandria. In the fourth century A.D., Theophilus ordered that the library of the Serapeum should be burned because of books that could stir up the citizenry. Also at Alexandria, at the famed Library of Alexandria, one of history’s largest wholesale book-burnings occurred around 640.
In later times, religious groups picked up the practice of book-burning more so than governments. Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible was burned in 1624, and Catholic leaders in 1787 burned a new hynn book that offended more conservative Catholics. The reason: the hymns were in German rather than Latin.
Book-burnings continue in the 20th century, although they are largely relegated to fringe religious groups or to Muslim countries.