Saturday, September 11, 2010

Book Burning a Western Disease?

A copy sent to The Globe and Mail, unpublished.

The opinions of two novelists on book burning fill a page of the September 11, 2010 issue of The Globe and Mail. Neither seems aware of relevant historical context.

In the longer of the two pieces, Esquire columnist Stephen Marche opines that book burning is "an endemic Western disease with deep cultural roots." This ignores the fact that the vast majority of books were and still are published in the West. Where most books are produced, most books will be read, most books saved, most shredded, most burned.

 By way of illustration, according to the United Nations' Arab Human Development Report 2002, "The Arab world translates about 330 books annually, one-fifth of the number that Greece translates." Population of the Arab world 300 million, Greece 12 million.

The books burned by the Nazis were not those of business, economics, mathematics, geometry, and the physical sciences. They burned books dealing with the humanities: religion, philosophy, culture, history, literature, the arts, that is, the mind-stretching, idea-producing works. The latter are the same areas of study our universities are currently downgrading.

Burning is not necessary in order to destroy a book's value. Just leave it on the shelf un-read. That neglect will have the same result as incineration. Society will have forgotten its message. While the physical sciences are cumulative, and only the latest version need be known, the humanities must be re-learned, from the beginning, in every generation.

The authors of the famous 1066 and All That got it right. "History is not what you thought. It is what you can remember," the preface tells us. The authors therefore, did their research in "golf-clubs, gun- rooms, green-rooms, etc." This tongue-in-cheek procedure contains much truth. It isn't what's written in books that counts, but how often those books are read. But I digress.

Elsewhere on the same page of the Globe, novelist Drew Hayden Taylor commits the same error as Marche. He too seems unaware that "white people" (as Taylor terms the West thereby revealing his status) have written the most books, and therefore likely to destroy the most books. A culture with no books has none to burn.

Taylor does not know that Muslims consider the actual physical pages of the Koran as sacred property. Christians do not ascribe the same sanctity to the pages Bible. For them, the message not the medium counts. But he has his own drum to beat (pun intended) in using book-burning as an excuse to drag in the unrelated topic of residential schools.

Now that we're talking about residential schools, Taylor is advised to await the report of the inquiry currently in progress. The commission will show that the treatment of aboriginal students had little to do with religion, and everything to do with government. The religious instructors were forced to implement such policies under pain of financial sanctions from Ottawa.

Taylor's worst deficit is in Islamic history. He writes, "It seems to me far more damage has been done to natives by people following the gospels and by any believing in the Koran." This speculation also evidences a lack of Canadian history. No Canadian aboriginal was ever exposed to Islamic behaviour. But he is free to read the history of the Islamic Ottoman Empire, for example, to learn what havoc it wreaked across the Balkans for almost 600 years, and how many millions of slaves Muslims took from Europe and Africa. (In 1631, Muslims raided and enslaved the entire village of Baltimore, County of Cork, Ireland.)

Taylor is half correct in his belief that books are not evil, only people. But like everything else in our ambivalent world, books can influence people to do evil things, instance Adolf Hitler's Mein Kampf.

Neither of these authors mentions Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 415. How can a novelist write about book burning without mentioning this insightful work? It describes an anti-intellectual society where the job of firemen is to burn the great books of the Western world -- the humanities, of course.

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