Are Your Books on Fire?

Burning of Books, Russia (paukrus)
Burning of Books, Russia (paukrus)

In the Internet Age, widespread book banning seems an archaic relic of theocracies, or the maniacal prerogative of remote entities like the Taliban and North Korea. This June I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time and realized book banning is closer than one might think.

Amazon performed a little bookburning documented in this 2009 article in Slate, when they deleted books from their customers’ Kindles. The reason was innocuous enough— the Kindle version of the books had been mistakenly published and the customers were refunded their money. But in that act, Amazon revealed what Farhad Manjoo coins as, “book-banning’s digital future.” Manjoo writes, “Amazon deleted books that were already available in print, but in our paperless future—when all books exist as files on servers—courts would have the power to make works vanish completely.” That is a swift and tidy metaphorical bonfire.

In our house there was an e-reader that my teenagers mess around with a little, a Christmas gift that never really took off. I have used it only once, in an act of self-immolation, reading The Big Burn while in an isolated cabin in the woods. In our house we all seem to prefer real books, and the Kindle gathered dust, the cord was eventually lost and it went the way of VCRs.

The chair where I now sit is walled in by a canyon of twenty or so boxes of them (we recently moved)— twenty boxes of books that cannot be remotely deleted.


The books that have escaped the boxes or have been added since we moved are lined up on the floor. The Jack Russell spends a lot of time here, nosing frantically through titles, tossing books about, rooting out insects imagined and real. Somewhere in all the boxes I have Asleep in a Haystack, the first book my father ever read to me; I have my high school French book, most of my college books, books friends have written, a copy of Good Poems signed by Garrison Keillor— a signature for which my husband and I waited in line so long we were unforgivably late for the babysitter, making her mother furious.

Almost every book I have ever read is here, provided I did not hate it—The Secret Life of Bees is not welcome hereand a larger percentage that I have not read. It is that larger percentage that concerns me most.

Writing in 1951, Ray Bradbury describes a book-free society dumbed-down with layers of distraction. Sound familiar? The protagonist’s wife, Mildred, spends her days in a room with 3 walls of “televisors,” walls with which she can interact. Mildred refers to the screens as family.

It’s really fun,” Mildred says. “It’ll be even more fun when we can afford to have the fourth wall installed.

I have made something close to Mildred’s argument in defense of Facebook, almost calling it family:

I’ve reconnected with old friends there. It’s entertaining. People post funny things . . . I laugh.

Is this post distracting you from reading? I have been caught more than once in front the T.V. with a Netflix movie running, paying bills online on the laptop, a task that cannot be accomplished without intermittently checking Facebook, while my cell phone pings texts about the tennis date I am trying to plan, my books ablaze.

The house we just moved from had a wall of bookshelves, 8 feet high and 15 feet wide, its crowning glory.  My husband built them during a lay-off to save his sanity. The buyer of our old house, a psychiatric nurse practitioner— an educated woman— visited with her father before we had moved out to take measurements for this and that, and I overheard her father ask,

“What are you going to put on all these shelves?”

“Do-dads,” she answered.

Do-dads! Read: Ashes.

Two years ago, friend and writer Bard Cole sent me a copy of Death Comes for the Archbishop with the enclosed note:

Now that we have entered the e-book era, I’ve been thinking I ought to share some of the books I’ve hoarded while people still read them…

A little shudder of digital paranoia ran through me when I thought of Bard emptying his shelves, his Kindle on the nightstand, packed full of downloaded books, Big Brother’s finger hovering over the delete button.  Like plucking baby Moses from the river, I clutched the book thinking, “I will take care of the child.” I started reading Death Comes for the Archbishop right away. I still have not finished it. I am a victim of self-imposed book banning.

There are worse crimes than burning books. One of them is not reading them. –  Ray Bradbury

What books are you not reading?


9 thoughts on “Are Your Books on Fire?

  1. Tracy Rhodes

    Listen, I’m a fan of technology, but I’ll never have a home that doesn’t have a wall of old-school books. They’re old buddies, fellow veterans of several interstate moves. Books are art to me – effort has gone into their binding, their cover design, their fonts and the texture of the paper. My bookshelves are a visual comfort at the end of the day. I look at the titles on the spines and remember scenes from them, or where I was when I read them. If I find them used, I think about who else held and read them before me. None of that is offered by a screen full of bits in a thin plastic housing. Viva la paper and ink!


  2. Lsayli

    Book burning was ordered when chairman Mao Tse Tung took over china and “liberate” the country. This was the simplest way to unite such a vast country with so many regional cultures and dialects. It was quite successful for quite a number of years, especially among the youths. A majority of them joined the “Red Army”.


  3. My parents grew up under communism and used to sneak banned books and Beatles songs (the Czech government’s official story was that any given Beatles song was actually written by a Soviet citizen LOL). Great post. And thanks for following me on Cold.


  4. Pingback: Survival Guide for Living in a Post-Fact World – A Word, Please. . .

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