Rules for Burning Books - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Rules for Burning Books

Rules for Burning Books

By Chris Dickens

Burning Books
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Most civilizations consider books sacred. But in an age of cheap verbosity, maybe some books aren’t sacred. 

By Chris Dickens

A week ago, while reading the opening chapters of one of my favorite novels, I was surprised by an urge to take it into the backyard, douse it with lighter fluid and roast a weenie over it.

It was my only copy of Don Quixote, so I’d have to replace it; that was one consideration. Moreover, it was a gift from a good friend, and inside was an inscription comparing me to the hapless hero of the narrative. I’d have to preserve that page, if only to remember to ask later what she meant by “naïve, romantic, and foolhardy.”

But the rest? I could smell it burning already.

Let’s agree that we live in a dark age for the printed word: belly-up book stores, a general preference for screens over paper, seductive cat videos everywhere. Even before the book was an endangered artifact, to burn one was considered the height of sacrilege. And there’s nothing Western or modern about this reverence. In India, it’s taboo to touch a book with your foot, or to lay one on the floor. Jewish custom doesn’t allow a book left open, and in Mongolia, the written word was divine.

How many translations have there been, I wondered, and how many of those translations are bad, and who gets to decide?

Don Quixote, considered by many to be the first novel, is a book about books. It’s a love of books that gets the hero into his messes, and throughout the novel the narrator tells Quixote’s tale based only on found manuscripts. A sword fight in Chapter 8 is cut off in the middle, swords suspended mid-air, while the narrator searches for the next part of the text.

Oh, how I love that.

But in the edition of Don Quixote given to me by my well-meaning friend, the text has been mutilated by an editor too ashamed to attach a name to the hack job. There are no lost manuscripts, no meta-narrative at all, not even Miguel de Cervantes’ self-effacing preface. That sword fight appears not as a battle interrupted by a lack of information, but as a continuous scene — straightforward and dull. All those lovely layers boiled down to the simple tale of an idiot’s adventure.

What were my options? Hide it in a closet for my niece to inherit after I’m dead? Give it away to a thrift shop? Not in good conscience, no. That would be to ruin Don Quixote for some unsuspecting reader.

Don Quixote itself contains a seminal book-burning scene. A priest and a barber are trying to cure our hero of his knightly obsessions by burning his library of chivalric adventures, going through it one work at a time to decide the fate of each (a Cervantes book survives, of course). As Ilan Stavans of Amherst College pointed out, the scene is a commentary on the censorship of Cervantes’ day. “Cervantes was a lover of books,” another Cervantes scholar, Frederick de Armas, said by email, “and never would have burned one.”


More chastisement: Stavans argued that if we decided to start burning inferior books, even the original Don Quixote “wouldn’t pass muster.” It is, he said, “really a poorly written book, often enhanced and beautified in translation. … It’s rowdy and repetitive, among other faults.”

What’s wrong with rowdy? I wondered. But I saw his point. To further complicate matters, Stavans recalled another scene in which Quixote decries all translations as books by secondary talents. How many translations have there been, I wondered, and how many of those translations are bad, and who gets to decide?

There’s a Jorge Luis Borges story, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” that’s structured as a book review of an edition of Don Quixote that’s been written word-for-word without referencing the original. At the end of the story, the critic tells us that Menard’s version is vastly superior to Cervantes’ because it can be considered in the light of all the history since 1602. At that point, there’s no need for Cervantes’ version at all, is there?

Then again, Borges was recovering from a head injury when he wrote this.

In the age of the Kindle — a suspiciously named device, considering the highly flammable medium it could end up annihilating — a novel you already own can become a different book while you’re sleeping. In this age censors won’t burn books, they’ll just edit them. Even Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 dystopia wasn’t that bleak; at least you can see a fire.

The neighbors would see mine. I took an X-Acto blade to the edges of my friend’s inscription, placed it carefully in the fireproof lockbox from my closet, and carried Don Quixote to the fire pit out back, my conscience as light as that of the priest and the barber in the terribly edited chapter I decided to light first. 

Would you condone book burning? Let us know. 

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