Burning books is a futile exercise

Published 5:33 am Wednesday, January 2, 2002

In America, with the proper permits, it is acceptable to burn almost anything.
In recent years, there has been much debate about our right to burn the flag of our country, something that gained popularity among protest groups in the 80s and early 90s.
Now, Americans seem intent to exercise their rights to burn books in a throw-back to apocalyptic vision of our country written about in such books as Fahrenheit 451, a classic that details a modern society that is trained to be socially and politically ignorant. The title represents the point at which paper burns n something that would be critically important to a book-burning society.
It was reported that members of a church in New Mexico spent a portion of the weekend burning Harry Potter books along with other pieces of literature that they deemed "unsuitable." In the case of the Potter books, the witchcraft theme was what prompted the bonfire.
I have applied Voltaire's logic to the situation. I applaud the group's exercise of its constitutional freedom and its right to protest. After all, it is the right of every American to be able to voice or protest that which we find unsuitable in society or government. I am willing, as Voltaire was, to "defend to the death" their right to say and do what they please. But I strongly disagree with their message and don't think we, as intelligent members of the most advanced race of creatures this planet has ever known, are moving forward when we burn in effigy that with which we disagree.
Books of all kinds are important to the social evolution of the human race. Without them, we would never have had access to the principles on which our country is based. From William Shakespeare to John Locke all the way to Ray Bradbury and J.R.R. Tolkein, what we know comes from the written word and I don't think we are making advances when we destroy it, no matter whether or not we agree with it.
I keep books around me that I strongly disagree with because doing so helps me define who I am and what I stand for. I believe that I am defined not only by that which I support, but also by that which I oppose. Having an understand of both helps me define clearly to myself where I stand on issues. I support freedom and democracy, but does that mean I am willing to fight against those who do not? Perhaps I would prefer to socially protest against them. Perhaps I would be willing to engage in combat against them. Perhaps I would choose any of 10 other actions that might be appropriate given the extent of my belief.
This said, I keep a copy of Communist Manifesto, a book by Karl Marx and Frederick Engles, in my office. While I do not support communism, I do find their political theory about government fascinating and ahead of its time. Unfortunately, their idealistic vision of Utopia doesn't work. It fails to account for the human element. In their world, there is no greed, no ego, no ambition. But that doesn't mean the book should be destroyed.
I don't know what social and political theory is offered by Harry Potter. I don't know how the books about a modern-day witch can offer any ideas of long-standing social value to our race. I haven't read any of the books and I don't plan to. But I don't think we accomplish anything by destroying those books.
Should we disagree with them, we learn far more about ourselves and about what we do believe in by reading them cover to cover, by studying them, by deciding what is contained within them that we disagree with. When we do all of that, we can, indeed, say we have accomplished something. We have given ourselves and those around us a better inclination as to who we are and what we stand for.
Burning books, on the other hand, is an exercise in futility and ignorance. More books will be printed. More people will want to know what is so terrible about those books and they'll go get their own copies and we will feed, literally, the very fire we seek to snuff out.
In the movie Forrest Gump, the title character, watches his friend as she hurls rocks at a home that represents her own personal hell. He simply says, "Sometimes there just aren't enough rocks."
And in this case there isn't enough fire.
So to those who burn books in New Mexico, I quote Voltaire. "I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."
Brian Blackley is publisher of The Atmore Advance. He may be reached at 368-2123 or via email at brian.blackley@atmoreadvance.com

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