Sunday, 22 April 2012

Book Burning

by Nikki Magennis

I burned a book last year. It wasn’t wildly exciting. You can watch the smoke and decidedly anticlimactic action here:

During my research for the (non) event, I was amused to find that the Nazi bookburnings had been postponed due to rain – all that sturm und drang posturing, dampened so prosaically by the weather. 
I like to think I stand nobly shoulder to shoulder with Voltaire and Neil Gaiman – defending all speech, however objectionable. But recently I uncapped my censor’s pen.
The book: Pete The Pirate’s Potty Adventure. The crime: threatening to instill undesirable qualities in my precious firstborn, by: 
  1. A subtly mocking admonition that he ought to ‘grow up’.
  2. The use of the horribly twee word ‘wee’.
  3. Ominous mention of Accidents.
I suppose I had the right to rewrite what was said in the book, and the author had the right to write what they did, and the audience had the right to point at the turd in the potty and call it a sausage. Well, a dossage. We’re working on diction. Anyway, we all had our rights and exercised them. Rights ad infinitum, so long as nobody gets hurt. A book is a book is a book.
Where were we? Oh yes. Pirate Pete. Could a book really disturb my son, impede his development, cause ill effect?
Are you kidding? Did you not read StruwelPeter [ ] as a child?

If we admit the life-changing, expansive, uplifting power of books, we have to admit their potentially ill or undesirable effects too. Books are not, necessarily, ‘a good thing’. Nor is knowledge. Nor, google only knows, is information. On a bad day, I think of Beckett:

 “Every word is like an unnecessary stain on silence and nothingness”


And then I feel like getting out the matches. But is there any point? Since the advent of print, in a sense, and certainly since Lulu and Smashwords, killing a book means little. Texts are virtually indestructible. Like Medusa, they grow more heads, multiply on hard drives, download through your fingers. Release a book into the world, it's lost among the noise. You could burn books, but it may keep you warmer, for longer, if you:
  1. pulped them and built a long, high wall around your own personal fiefdom.
  2. varnished pages over your own eyeballs, ears, fingertips and tongue.
  3. Boiled up some Book Soup. Then, wait for it to reappear as a dhossage in your potty, so you can point and sneer.

If none of this inspires, instead, find a book you love and lose yourself in it, read and reread the words until they open up and let you inside, unlock the layers of possible meanings, burn it into your memory, swallow every sentence, translate it with babelfish and back again, set fire to it and sift through the sounds that remain, put them in your mouth, mix the ashes with spit to make ink, and daub your own brand new book on a fresh, clean white page.

Nikki Magennis

Nikki Magennis is an author and artist. Find her here:


Ashley R Lister said...


Thanks for being a guest blogger with us here this week.

I have to say, watching the video, it's quite a shocking moment when you drop that book on the flames.

But you're right to acknowledge that, for all their good effects, some books can also have a negative impact.

That said, have you seen the Amazon scores for Pirate Pete? I wish I had 60 x 5 star reviews.


Nikki Magennis said...

Hi Ash,

thanks for having me!

Everyone else has made such poignant points this week, it seems my post is pretty crass.

I also felt bookburning was a really unspeakable act, until I did it, and then it seemed so inconsequential. Context is everything, I suppose.

The book as an object doesn't mean much. It's a morally neutral object. The Nazis were killing a cultural symbol, not merely books.

Or maybe I'm a bit of a nihilist. Could be that too.

Ashley R Lister said...

Your point about the negative impact of books (potentially making them fodder for the flames) strikes me as being very important.

Over on , Remittance Girl is discussing society's current obsession with bland characters. It got me wondering whether such books should be burnt to encourage readers to find characters that don't simply sleepwalk through a plot.


Nikki Magennis said...

RG's post is very interesting. Maybe we should encourage some inflammatory work, is that what you're saying?!

I suppose the trouble is that someone has to decide whether each book is positive or negative. Who is that person, who appoints them?

Even democracy doesn't necessarily work, as the populist vote doesn't mean the 'right' vote for everyone.

MikeWJ said...

This is an amazing post, both extremely well-written and incisive. Funny, too. There are more than a few books I'd like to burn, now that I think of it.

Jo said...

But books affect everyone differently. To be honest, sometimes reading about challenging, brave, sensationally successful and wonderful women heroines just makes me feel more like shit than I do anyway. A bit of bland is often... how people are. Your woman's heroine is a daughter, a lover, a successful student and professional. She's brave, she thinks... I dunno, she does me, even if I might challenge her on lots of points. She's not that different to a lot of the women I know. Sigh.

Anyway, I do like this post a lot. I didn't realise that was the book you burned. Heh :)