“The books that the world calls immoral are books that show the world its own shame.” ― Oscar Wilde
Books are the currency of thoughts and ideas. In a world divided between existential needs and metaphysical conundrums, books are temporal doors to the realms of spirituality, knowledge, fantasy, and freedom. Perhaps that is why tyrants have always hated books. Hated or feared? Perhaps a bit of both.
Soon after the first books started getting printed with the coming of Johannes Gutenburg's revolutionary printing press in Germany, those in power came up with ways to cap the spread of ideas. Sometime in the mid-16th century, the Roman Catholic Church, once one of the most powerful institutions in the West, launched the Index Librorum Prohibitorum or the "List of Prohibited Books". It was a list of publications deemed heretical or contrary to Catholics morality. Reading or owning such books could lead to (and did to) harsh punishments for heresy.
Many works by some of the greatest European thinkers, scientists, philosophers, poets were banned by the Church, and remained hidden for centuries in the papal library of forbidden books.
But tyrants were banning books even before it was conceived. Before the printing press, the written word was a novelty only the rich or religious could afford. Sometime in 600 BC, the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah of Anathoth wrote on a scroll that the King of Babylon would destroy the land of Judah. The tail, recounted in Jeremiah 36, ends with the King of Judah burning the scroll and having Jeremiah arrested.
Book burning, the precursor of bans, essentially did the same thing and has been a political exercise across the world. Be it the Catholics or the Communists, the kings or the fascists, the capitalists and the Nazis. Joseph Stalin, an erstwhile bibliophile, was notorious for purging the libraries in USSR of books he found to even have a tinge of liberal Western ideology. As were Adolf Hitler and his Nazis.
When the Mamluks from Turkey invaded India in the 12th century, one of the first things they attacked was Nalanda University, the crown jewel of the Magadha empire (in present day Bihar) which was said to have housed about 9 million books. Book burning was a strategy in the Ottoman empire too in Turkey where conquerors were in the habit of burning books that were written or read in the reign of the previous ruler. It was not a matter of ideology as much as plain politics.
In today's digital world and age of pirated literature and "copies of copies of copies", burning books could best be a symbolic power move. But while the Vatican chose to stop keeping its inventory of banned books in 1966, governments across the world continue to keep tabs. An analysis by PEN America, for instance, has found that nearly school books were banned 2,500 times in 2021 across the US, half of them in states like Florida. The report noted that a majority of books that faced the axe featured content or characters or themes related to LGBTQIA, persons of colour, or other so-called "contentious" themes. A famously "banned" book also led to an attack on writer Salman Rushdie who barely survived the hate.
Banning of books represents a larger malaise, an attack on knowledge, on ideas, on the freedom of the mind to think, create or question. Here, the historical burning of the Library of Alexandria may hold a lesson.
The philosopher-scientist Carl Sagan at the beginning of his magnum opus Cosmos laments the loss of the famous library - a pinnacle of the classical Roman civilisation, stating that “all the knowledge in the ancient world was within those marble walls". In an editorial for Time magazine, Richard Ovenden, author of Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, points out that that tale of the burning of the library of Alexandria in what is today's Egypt was a legend - a conglomeration of myths. He purported that rather than resulting from the destruction of war or a single fire, the library (or libraries) of Alexandria went obsolete due to neglect of the state and the intellectual degeneracy of readers who became increasingly drawn to ignorance. The burning of the libraries really represented the corrosion of the great empire built by the Romans from within.
Today, when libraries are fast becoming relics, Alexandria holds an important lesson. Banning books can limit access to knowledge but ignorance is the tyrants' real goal. But the reader must also strive to stay wide awake against the enticing slumber of ignorance. As a mark of this mental resistance, September 18-24 is celebrated as 'Banned Books Week", an annual awareness campaign that seeks to shed light on books that have been banned or challenged by governments or sections of the people across the world.
After all, In the words of Maximillien Robespierre, the hero of the French Revolution, “The secret of freedom lies in educating people, whereas the secret of tyranny is in keeping them ignorant.