The Best Way to Burn a Book

The public burning of “un-Germanic” books by members of the SA (Sturmabteilung, or “Assault Division,” a Nazi paramilitary organization) and university students in Berlin in May 1933. Hulton Getty/Stone

The public burning of “un-Germanic” books by members of the SA (Sturmabteilung, or “Assault Division,” a Nazi paramilitary organization) and university students in Berlin in May 1933. © Hulton Getty/Stone

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 is set in a future where all books are burned, in a dystopic twist of irony, by firemen.

Hearing the word “book-burning” immediately calls to mind images of censorship, fundamentalist sects and repressive regimes from different periods of history: the Roman Catholic Church’s Inquisitions, Hitler’s Nazi Germany, and here in the Philippines the US-backed Marcos dictatorship, among others.

In the said examples, censorship was imposed from above. For the most part, books were banned and burned because these were deemed dangerous to their beliefs or the ruling order. But the scenario painted by Bradbury in Fahrenheit 451 is even grimmer. The people themselves didn’t want to read books anymore (and didn’t develop any alternative that would perform the book’s functions for the dissemination of information and ideas, like say, the Internet). As Beatty, one of the novel’s characters explain: “It didn’t come from the Government down. There was no dictum, no declaration, no censorship to start with…”

“School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophies, histories, languages dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally almost completely ignored. Life is immediate, the job counts, pleasure lies about after work. Why learn anything save pressing buttons, pulling siwtches, fitting nuts and bolts?” (p.55-56)

Sadly, this kind of mentality is something that we see unfolding everyday. Beatty continues:

“Classics cut to fit fifteen-minute radio shows, then cut again to fill a two-minute book column, winding up at last as a ten – or twelve-line dictionary resume. I exaggerate, of course. The dictionaries were for reference. But many were those whose sole knowledge of Hamlet… was a one-page digest in a book that claimed: now at last you can read all the classics; keep up with your neighbors…”

“Speed up the film… Digest-digests, digest-digest-digests. Politics? One column, two sentences, a headline! Then, in midair, all vanishes! Whirl man’s mind around about so fast under the pumping hands of publishers, exploiters, broadcasters that the centrifuge flings off all unnecessary, time-wasting thought!” (p.54-55)

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