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Why burning books is totally O.K.

If you paid for them

Unpopular opinion: I think burning books is acceptable, even desirable (minus the CO2 emissions, of course). Before you demand my head on a pike please let me explain how I came to this conclusion. It all started, as so often, as a quite harmless Sunday idea: I started cleaning up and went down the rabbit-hole of pleasure and guilt (no, no books were harmed, no cult was started).

Burning books is burning treasures

I guess it's quite safe to say, in general, civilized society makes a point in condemning the burning of books. I know I grew up with the idea of books being something almost holy one was supposed to revere and cherish books, treating them with utmost care as to not damage them by accident or, even more barbaric, to write on them or lose them, both acts of mutilation. I remember even a teacher of mine saying:

A person who doesn't return a lent book should pay for the stolen book with a hand; a person returning it should pay for the idiocy of returning a treasure with their head.

I used to think of this saying of his as something quirky and clever, but in a way, absolutely true. And thus I never lent books, but rather hoarded them. That was 20 years ago, perhaps. At that time I just received books as gifts, bought some, got some in different ways and never once I worried about storing them. I had space and time to do whatever my selfish whims dictated: I had enough books and enough time to read those careful curated books. As a young person, I was in the position of not sharing and nothing bad came from building a small sanctuary full of untouchable relics. The mutilation of those relics was for me a mere despicable act of beasts and brutes, a relic of hateful societies, a hate crime of the past.

But then, as it always happens when growing up, I opened my eyes and started seeing Bibles, constitutions, passports and flags being burnt, and i promised to never fall that deep. To never become such a beast, to never consider burning those treasures.

Not all books are created equal

How naive I was as a child, how primitive of me to see books as synonym of their content. Such a victim of the idea that individuals can be improved education and culture and that reading and school are but exactly those things and thus the panacea to barbarism. Truly, when I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child. And I played until the play became life. And life taught me that not all books are equal and that even cornflakes have instructions and that reading any of those doesn't form or improve or unravels anyone but the sellers. And I decided to live and let live, but to never touch any of those accursed books of lesser value and to stir away from them.

The death of idealism

I think it's no secret I am far from an idealistic person. Most of my idealistic views died at some point of growing up in favor of pragmatism. And so, said Sunday I was at home, cleaning shelves and drawers and I saw myself confronted with piles of books I have been carrying on my back for the last 14 years-or-so I have lived in Berlin.

All these times I moved I could have left those books behind, but instead I kept them with me and carried them over to new flats. Some of those books I will never read and would never had bought (a present is a present), some of them I tried to love and couldn't force myself to, some of them I hope to read at some point, some others I have more than once because that's how collecting works.

There was point in time where I would lend books and pretend to forget i had given them away. So altruistic of me. Other times I just opted for the depraved practice of reading ebooks. Most of the times I would just try to ignore them. Something that worked well, until it didn't. Full shelves can only be so full. And then, the purge began.

A symbol can't be burnt

As a complete snob, I would never think of getting rid of the complete works of Shakespeare or Poe. Nor would I dream of parting with my dictionaries and grammars. Not that I own that many, but they are, in a way, part of who I am. Those are my treasures and my symbols.

And then again, there are those birthday and Christmas presents. I try to always keep Tolkien in mind when he returned his copy of Dune:

In fact I dislike Dune with some intensity, and in that unfortunate case, it is much the best and fairest to another author to keep silent and refuse to comment.

And so I keep asking myself: what to do with a Coelho I never declined? Or with third copy of Pedro Páramo I now own? As of now I, a not religious person, have at least 3 Bibles sitting on a shelf. Surely I could get rid of all other books without much a do, but a Bible is not so easily gotten rid of. Not as a gift. Not in a pyre. But why?

After all this time I've reached the conclusion that not the burning of books, after all paper, itself is a problem, but the symbolic gesture. Like gifting a Bible is often an act of evangelization, burning one is an attack on the believing community. Same as burning a flag. An ideological statement, a declaration of war on ideas. But this, as an act, is independent of the burning of paper itself. Especially with the advances in digital retail and distribution of media, declaring war on a book and trying to eradicate it by burning all its exemplars is as futile as Barbara Streisand trying to erase record of her house in Malibu. So why does it still feel wrong to burn a book?

My take on this is a pragmatical one: Burning books is burning paper, burning money., destroying one's own property. Sometimes rational, sometimes stupid, always a waste of time and an awful fucking lot of pollution. Fire is nice, but have you tried upcycling?

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