Burning books requires much time and commitment

In the last few days, we've seen Obama trying to reason with Pastor Terry Jones, an obscure preacher from Gainesville, Florida, over the television and protest rallies sweeping across Afghanistan. Why? Because Jones announced that he was going to burn some copies of the Qu'ran to coincide with the anniversary of the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Center.

Image courtesy of Getty Images

Pastor Terry Jones in Motion

Jones strikes an unusual figure, with his handle-bar moustache suit and 70s-coloured tie. He seems like a figure from a National Lampoon film, but right now he is being taken very seriously. He's called off his protest because the voices in his head told him to.

Back in July, Jones's colleague Sapp posted a YouTube video about their plans, and there was some brief interest, a few news articles. The story has steadily grown, as affiliate television stations have passed on the scandal. The BBC covers its growth in this article.

Burning books has always attracted controversy throughout history, symbolising a destruction of a civilisation and abandonment of intellectual society. It is taboo.

Non-Aryan literature burnt in Berlin's Opernplatz in May, 1933

The burning of books by the Nazis in the 1930s is probably the most familiar example, gleeful SA men piling academic papers and Jewish books onto the funeral pyres of civil society. Heine's quote "Those who begin by burning books will end by burning people" is on the lips of every secondary school History student. See the transcription of Goebbels' speech and the description of the scene.

The burning of the remaining books at the dwindling Library of Alexandria by the Saracens contributed to centuries of disdain in the West for ostensibly uncivilised and anti-intellectual Muslims.

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SA Nazis and students burning books in May 1933

Since the act is taboo, most people have never tried burning books. Perhaps they imagine happy flames devouring the words and knowledge. See how happy everyone is above, glad to be rid of complicated ideas. Even the students themselves are joining in.

The reality is less exciting. Allow me to present a personal anecdote about burning books...

Standing around the bonfire in a field in Kerry

When camping in Kerry with my Scout troop, we ran out of firewood one evening, and took to burning old papers and log-books discarded by the Outdoor Education Centre where we were staying. These burned so pitifully that the fire required constant  ministration to stop it from going out. Burning books requires much time and commitment. Anything less leaves sheets, chapters, whole volumes unburnt.

Burning paper leaves great mounds of ash. Individual pages are sometimes left readable in the absence of breeze. We used a stick to lift the ash-skeletons of books, only to reveal whole books resting intact in the embers below.

I couldn't help but imagine an SA stormtrooper poking at an unwilling fire, trying to burn the last of the hated literature, only to find another volume by Marx or Freud lurking beneath, giving up in disgust and walking away, sheets blowing behind him.

In the morning, we found there were still full books beneath the ash

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