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The Vacuum Issue 8 spacer Issue 8
Burning Books
by Robbie Meredith
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When I was a young and idealistic teacher (as opposed to an older and mercenary ex-teacher) I kept a special picture in my room. I had copied a photo of one of the most iconic gestures of protest in my lifetime, of the student protestor who stood, fragile and alone, in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square, enlarged it and placed it above my blackboard. Therefore, when 3C finally settled at their desks in the morning they were confronted by an image which I hoped would lead them to question authority (except mine), inflame their souls and cause them to think beyond the confines of, what I perceived to be, their middle class lives.
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Of course, my reasoning was hackneyed and patronising, everything the original protest wasn't, but I soon realised that Dead Poet's Society was, in fact, a very shite film, took the photo down, and gave up trying to create a colony of Levellers in suburban Bangor.
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However, while my clichéd thinking is not especially notable, I think the context is. I was an English teacher at the time and this was one of the reasons why I felt, arrogantly perhaps, that I should take some responsibility for the social conscience of my pupils. I imagine that most English teachers nurture the same hidden sense of superiority, because, more than others in the profession, they appear to grant equal weight to emotion, feeling and subjectivity as well as reason and intellect. They desire to engage the heart as well as the head.
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This rather naïve romanticism is, mainly, due to the raw material used. When, day in, day out, you are reading, talking about, and explaining books which were written, in part, to change people's perceptions about the world, to make them see anew, it's too easy to believe that you should add some missionary zeal to the process. Because, ultimately, somewhere, somehow, you believe that books can change lives.
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And this is why, in every society, at every time, some books, occasionally all books - bar one or two - have been regarded as very dangerous indeed.
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There are no lack of contemporary examples from our own culture. Last Sunday I listened to a member of the ethics and morals committee of the Free Presbyterian church, on local radio, declare that adulterers should be prosecuted because our law should be, as fully as possible, based on the bible. You don't have to like adultery to view this as just a small example of why the bible, the best selling book in the world, could also be regarded as the most menacing, especially in the hands of those who conveniently ignore, to paraphrase the late Douglas Adams, the bit where a guy gets crucified for saying how good it would be if we tried to be nice to each other for a change.
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The book, therefore, can be a potential tool of coercion, but readers can also find meaning in a book which causes them to subvert and question supposedly 'natural' practices, orders and laws dictated by their rulers. Some slave owners punished their slaves for learning to read, and the burning of books is often advanced as one of the defining images of a totalitarian regime or belief-system.
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In fact, books have been regarded as dangerous for almost as many reasons as there are genres of writing, although 'obscenity' is an especially frequent charge. Today we're really not meant to be surprised by much, but some of the reasons why books have been regarded with fear and loathing still take the breath away, like the decision of the apartheid regime in South Africa to ban Black Beauty, or the 1989 action of two school districts in California who banned an illustrated edition of Little Red Riding Hood because the heroine was pictured taking food and wine to her sick grandmother, thereby, they felt, promoting the drinking of alcohol. Whereas the poor old wolf getting axed over the head didn't concern them at all.
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Even more recently, of course, J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has been condemned, and in some cases banned, by some librarians and teachers, not because it's a corporate bastard PR monster which threatens to crush better books into obscurity, but because they are fearful that the desirability of magic portrayed in the stories will cause Junior to haul out the Ouija board, eat bats and buy Slayer albums.
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It is relatively easy, therefore, to find ridiculous examples of supposedly 'dangerous' books, which allows us to feel superior to the unenlightened redneck oafs, religious crazies or despotic tyrants who've seen fit to ban them. However, can we be sure that we would always be so liberal? Can books really, seriously, ever be considered truly dangerous?
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Of course they can, in a number of ways. However, before I expand on this, I'd better point out three caveats. Firstly, the definition of 'dangerous' is inexact and can vary from hurtful to hazardous. Secondly, whether a book can truly be regarded as dangerous depends, like so much else, on the ideological context in which it is read, and finally, to regard a book as potentially dangerous does not necessarily equate to a desire for censorship.
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Burning Books
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One of the most recent, high profile legal cases to illustrate the complexity of the issue took place in 2000. The right-wing historian, David Irving, sued an American history professor, Deborah Lipstadt, and her publisher, Penguin books, for libel, alleging that she had damaged his reputation and earnings by labelling him a 'holocaust denier.' In a succession of articles, lectures and books Irving had questioned the scale and nature of the holocaust and most of us would, wherever our sympathies lie in the middle east, side with Lipstadt, like the judge in the case eventually did. However, at what point does Irving's work, or the work of those like him, such as Ernst Zundel, author of Did Six Million Really Die?, become dangerous. In a hundred years, perhaps, when all traces of the actual suffering are gone and their work may be treated as a reliable source, or now, when an anti-semite decides that their views legitimise dogshit through a door or the burning of a synagogue.
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If books can, in some cases, inspire action, cause people to reason afresh, then how much responsibility must the book, and its author, bear if the actions turn out to be dangerous, despicable, disastrous? Do we ban the book to prevent the possibility? It's all very well to spout that we must defend free speech and teach people to think for themselves, but what if some people are incapable of doing this, and, putting the book down on the bedside table, decide that they'll shoot that doctor, destroy that church, bomb that plane. And yet Š and yet, censorship is something which, for many reasons, grates and is not proven to work anyway.
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Besides, it's often pretty idiosyncratic. Personally, I would be happy to ensure that the performance 'poet' (I use the term loosely) I heard at Giros one night last year, reading a selection of 'protest' poems, through a cloud of fragrant smoke, which consisted of little more than loud claims that he was the scourge of the British establishment, was prevented from ever uttering another word in public. See those faux-subversive poets, string 'em up, guv. It's the only language they understand.
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And, of course, most books are banned on logic no more developed than mine above. The book ends up offending someone's sensibility, often by reputation and before they've read the thing, and, before you know it, it becomes easier to buy a child than a few pages of bound paper.
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Further, no one can legislate for every possible reaction to any given book. You don't have to be a disciple of reader response theory, dynamically attempting to work out which interpretative community you belong to (eh?), to accept that different people can respond very differently to the same words on a page. One man can pick up the bible and decide to go to Africa to help feed the starving, another can roam the streets telling everyone they're going to hell. One woman can get hold of the Anarchist's Cookbook and make napalm in the kitchen, while another can see the same book and decide to spend the rest of her days living in a peace camp. Further, some readers might map an entirely strange set of interpretative co-ordinates altogether, deciding that Anne of Green Gables is telling them to kill their next door neighbours.
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One book can therefore encourage people in many different ways. To take one last example, let's look at a text which has, at various times, been accused of having the potential to encourage sedition, destruction, amorality and suicide, Friedrich Nietzsche's Will to Power. This is the text which is widely regarded as instituting the modern philosophy of nihilism, the realisation that all values are baseless and nothing can be known or communicated, 'not only the belief that everything deserves to perish, but [that] one actually puts one's shoulder to the plough; one destroys.' Nietzsche has also, unfortunately, come to be known in the popular mind as the approved philosopher of the Nazis, despite the fact that he clocked it in 1900, leaving a vast collection of notes in the care of his anti-semitic sister, who published some of them as Will to Power.
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However, read Will to Power and what do you feel? Do you begin to desire, or even work towards, the coming apocalypse, like the Nazis did (in which case please don't sit beside me on a bus), or does the realisation that we're all pretty equally fucked provide you with a strange sense of existential liberation? Does the book imply that there is something heroic in the fact that we, like the Sisyphus of myth and Camus, persevere in meaningless struggle even though our lives are futile, or does it leave you feeling free to indulge in all kinds of po-mo play, because nothing matters anyway? Maybe it gives you a mid-life crisis twenty years too soon and causes you to reach for the Prozac.
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Is Will to Power a dangerous book? Who knows? Perhaps books themselves, in the face of the onslaught from new, and more popular, media and entertainment forms, have become passé. And yet, in every country in the world today, books are still a means of promoting various forms of knowledge and belief, and suggested courses of action, and are still suppressed, censored and banned as a result.
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I hate to resort to relativist cliché to finish, but maybe books are actually only as dangerous as the people who read them especially well-meaning English teachers.
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