Wednesday, 3 February 2010


“A book that is shut is but a block.” - Thomas Fuller

I have blogged before about book burning and it is the topic of today’s blog once again. The burning of books is one form of biblioclasm (book destruction) and which for me represents one of the worst crimes against civilisation and against freedom. Wikipedia has a good article on this, which is worth reading.

What prompted me to write about this topic today was an old (2007) news item about Tom Wayne the owner of a bookshop, “Prospero’s Bookstore” that I discovered while doing an unrelated internet search. The bookshop is located in Kansas City Missouri (91800 West 39th Street, Kansas City, Missouri 64111). It is a vast shop where I would gladly spend several months browsing and reading and buying merchandise. However, I am a bibliophile and not a bibliopyroclast (book burner!), hence my obsession.

Tom Wayne has observed that modern society is becoming divorced from the act of reading. His diminishing sales and increasing stock attest to this, as well as figures from the bureau of statistics, and this is not a phenomenon confined to the USA; I was horrified to learn that in Greece approximately 8-9% of the population reads for pleasure. Astounding for the country that prides itself as the cradle of Western civilisation and with an uninterrupted history of literature for thousands of years! In the USA, less than 50% reads for pleasure (in 1982, the percentage was 57%). I must say that I feel very proud to live in Australia where our percentage of readers for pleasure (over 18 adults who read for pleasure every day, most days of the week) is 78%!

Now back to Mr Wayne: On Sunday May 27th 2007, he decided to hold a protest and goad the non-reading public into action. He had discovered that not only could he not sell his surplus books, he could not even give them away to libraries and thrift shops as “they had no room”. He decided to publicly burn books outside his store as a protest.
His justification for this and I quote, from his website:

“Q1: Why burn books?
A:   As a cultural wake-up call.
Burning books is an inflammatory act.  Books can contain our most sacred and valuable thoughts. The Nazis burned books to keep people from reading them.  Prospero's burned books to incite you to read - by not reading, the culture is empowering forces like the Nazis. It's giving them exactly what they want without a fight.”

The burning persisted for 50 minutes until the fire brigade arrived to douse the flames with the excuse that Mr Wayne did not have the requisite permit. Extreme? Yes, and I suspect that Mr Wayne’s motives were more geared towards publicity rather than protest. I quote from the article I found (see above):

“After slogging through the tens of thousands of books we've slogged through and to accumulate that many and to have people turn you away when you take them somewhere, it's just kind of a knee-jerk reaction,” Mr Wayne said. “And it's a good excuse for fun.”

I am very uneasy about Mr Wayne’s actions. Whether done in “fun” or as a “protest” or in fact as a publicity stunt (or all of these), the whole affair makes me shudder with revulsion. Investigating the matter a little further, I discovered that Mr Wayne is not the first bookseller to have performed this public book incineration. An excellent Times article highlights the case of Mr Shaun Bythell of Wigtown, Scotland performed the same stunt in 2005. And this in Wigtown, which in 1997 was proclaimed Scotland’s “National Book Town”, having 25 book-selling businesses.

The idea of book burning repels me. Even in the case of damaged books that can’t be salvaged, I would opt for recycling. Take that paper that as trapped winged thoughts and pulp it, give it a new lease of life, let new words be printed on it and let a new generation of readers delight in the printed word. In terms of increasing the percentage of the reading public, we must be doing something very right here in Australia, compared to what is being done in Greece, say. What is to blame for people abandoning reading? Our society and its values. The ease with which one may be entertained and diverted, the cheap and easy non-cerebral pleasures offered by TV, movies, music, drugs, alcohol, dancing, sport. The low value our society places on intellectual pursuits compared to the high value it places on superficial fame afforded to rock stars, sporting personalities, filmstars, etc. The financial rewards it offers to people involved in intellectual pursuits versus what a “star” can make is sobering and disturbing.

Ray Bradbury’s novel “Fahrenheit 451” is a paean to books and reading. It looks at biblioclasm and ts effects on a society. Read it, it's fantastic!


  1. I agree with you Nicholas about the book burning being a publicity stunt. I couldn't bring myself to burn a book no matter how useless it was. Your idea of recycling is fantastic.
    'Fahrenheit 451' was a great film too!

  2. do electronic books count
    everytime i wipe one from the memory of my kindle does it count as burning it
    i have no problem with burning the books as fahrenheit 451 shows the ideas in the books survive the physical book
    if burning the books causes more peple to read then well done

  3. I see Gianni's point but I think I also feel very bad when I see books burned. Better recycle them by pulping and that way we are not adding to the greenhouse gases too!

  4. ... and Farenheit 451 is also one of my favourites ever ...