In the beginning was the Word. Then the Word was sung, chanted, repeated, disputed, enhanced, written down, illustrated, copied and bound.
The Word became the Book, and the Book became a sacred object.
The Roman Emperor Hadrian understood this. He also understood that objects, facts and materials sometimes speak as loudly as words. He was, after all, the man so thorough he built a wall right across Britain instead of a few feeble forts here and there. The Empire banned the teaching of Scripture, and after the Bar-Kochba rebellion Hadrian knew it was not just the seditious ideas—the words, the Law—he had to destroy. It was the vessels that held the words. He ordered teachers and writers be burned at the stake, wrapped in the community’s precious Torah scrolls.
The story goes that as the flames consumed the rabbi Haninah ben Teradion he cried out: "I see the parchment burning, but the words soar up in the air".
If the book—or the scroll or map or codex—is the place where the sublime connects with the material, then surely destroying the fact, the body, the form of the book would ensure that the ideas contained within also went up in smoke.
So reasoned Hadrian and over centuries and across cultures many authorities of different ideologies were of the same mind: the Qin dynasty emperors who burned all books of history other than their own, Alexander the Great, the Holy Inquisition (which banned everything from Galileo to editions of the Bible in languages other than Latin), Cromwell’s Puritans, Stalin, Savonarola, Pinochet, the Third Reich, Senator McCarthy, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and Christian activists in the 21st century Land of the Free who still refuse to allow high school students in some school districts to read To Kill a Mockingbird.
Words are dangerous. Ideas, beliefs, stories, songs, poems: any one of them can shatter an empire, challenge authority, shock the moral. Words that are not written or painted or inscribed can be easily lost, scattered to the winds of history like the songs of Sappho. But the more they are written down, reproduced, sold, nailed to cathedral doors, pasted on walls, smuggled over borders, dropped from planes or posted on wikis, the more dangerous and frightening and subversive they appear to those they challenge.
When words are incorporated into objects and take material form they become things of beauty or importance, from the pamphlets of Luther to the 400 million copies of Harry Potter books. The artefact can become a threat in itself—or a treasure.
Countless medieval portraits feature the pious subject reading or clasping the Word. Women pore over the pages of a Book of Hours. Men hold jewel-encrusted ivory-bound books tenderly in both hands. Books were venerated, collected, traded, decorated, beloved.
Only certain books, mind you, and only in certain scripts. When the radical William Tyndale translated the Testaments from Latin into accessible English (first edition, 1525), he was tried, choked, impaled and burnt at the stake, his Bible and other writings banned and burned.
But it didn’t stop the words. Dozens of Tyndale’s phrases and words, such as ‘fight the good fight’, are still with us. And with the invention of movable type and the mechanical press, words multiplied. No longer rare and precious and locked away for their own safety and everyone else’s, words became a commodity, a part of life for millions of people, for the first time in history.
It’s no coincidence that the spread of the printing press in Europe and Lutheranism occurred in the same generation, nor that the Catholic Church revived its traditional response to fight against heresy: the Supreme Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. One of the Inquisition’s favourite measures was the banning and burning of books, as well as those who wrote, printed and published them.
It was Heinrich Heine who famously wrote of the Inquisition, in 1821, "Where they burn books, so too will they in the end burn human beings." His works were among those cast into the flames on May 10, 1933, when more than 25,000 ‘un-German’ books were burned in the newly-proclaimed Third Reich.
Throw the pages into the fire, turn them all into nothing, and the words won’t exist. Tear every page from the spine of every copy, shred the pages, melt the glue, burn the words to ashes and scatter them to the winds. You do it in public, in a city square, to express your contempt, your fury, your utter refusal to countenance freedom of thought. If you can’t eliminate the idea, the ephemeral, go for the corporeal entity. Have the author—or even the printer—torn limb from limb.
It works, sometimes, but not all the time, and the book-burners know it. Burning isn’t about elimination: it’s about punishment, humiliation, public flagellation. Let authors hear the flames crackle as they take hold of the paper—the body, the work. Force them to watch, to understand that they could well be next.
Pierre Abélard may be best known nowadays for his ill-fated affair with Héloïse d’Argenteuil: both brilliant scholars, their scandalous relationship resulted in a son (Astrolabe) and extreme punishment. Abélard was castrated and became a monk; Héloïse too took the veil, but they continued writing to each other and their correspondence evolved into an extraordinary exchange of ideas and affection that made them role models for ill-starred lovers everywhere. In 1121, Abélard was forced to appear before the Council of Soissons, which ordered the destruction of all copies of his treatise On the Divine Unity and Trinity. As a final insult: Abélard was forced to burn the books himself before being shut up in a monastery—but he still kept writing.
The funny thing is, the most banned and burned titles in the US during the past few years have not been works of radical Christian theology like Abélard’s, or even the Qur’an: they were adventure tales about a boy wizard. In 2003 in Michigan, for example, two local pastors burned a Harry Potter book outside their church. The Detroit Free Press reported that the fire so inflamed parishioners’ passions that some of the spectators also burned the Book of Mormon, a copy of the Bible (not the King James version) and the movie Coneheads. When Pastor Douglas Taylor of Lewiston, Maine, was forbidden by authorities to hold a book burning in 2001, he slashed twelve Harry Potter books instead. Protesters cut up Bibles in response. "It didn’t bother me at all," Taylor said, of the retaliation. "It’s the message, not the print on the page."
Not even Pastor Taylor expects Harry Potter to vanish like the poems of Sappho or the Library of Alexandria. JK Rowling is beyond reach of the good citizens of Michigan. Potter and his diabolical magic can’t be erased from the world’s consciousness but he can be placed in the stocks and pelted with metaphorical rotten tomatoes.
Yet JK Rowling has recently, again, redefined publishing by providing her readers with a multidimensional online platform, Pottermore, filled with virtual representations of the magical world of Harry Potter. Her words are now a universe. Critically, readers can also download digital versions of her books.
And here’s the thing: you can’t burn ebooks. You can ban them, censor them, try to lock them down. You can deny people access to the electricity and devices required to read them. But they’ll slip past any rules you make. People will smuggle them over borders, through cables, by smartphone—even print them out. Those words will be spread around, no matter what you do.
The very nature of ebooks, their lack of materiality, might make them ‘less’ of a book, less than that precious handful—almost weightless, immaterial. People who love books as artefacts cry out in despair at the notion. But it renders them once again ephemeral and arguably more dangerous, more slippery.
"It seems a good idea," wrote Ursula Le Guin recently, "rather than mourning their death, to rejoice that books now have two ways of staying alive, getting passed on, enduring, instead of only one."
Words printed on air, written in code, are free to soar.
Kelly Gardiner is a writer, journalist and editor with many years’ experience in print and digital media. Her books include Goddess, The Sultan's Eyes, Act of Faith, the Swashbuckler adventure trilogy for young readers, and a picture book, Billabong Bill’s Bushfire Christmas. See kellygardiner.com or follow @kmjgardiner on Twitter.