Each year, many students are assigned the book Fahrenheit 451. The book describes an imaginary United States in the future where books are illegal. People called Firemen are directed to burn any book they find. The title of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel refers to the temperature at which a book’s paper catches fire and burns: 451 degrees Fahrenheit (233 degrees Celsius).
Bradbury wrote his book during the McCarthy Era in America. He used it to address the issues of that time. During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were allies. After the war, however, they became enemies. The Soviet Union followed an economic system called communism, while the United States followed capitalism. From 1947 to the late 1950s, some Americans became fearful that Russian spies had secretly entered American society and wanted to destroy it. This period of time is called the Red Scare. Bradbury’s work is a product of this difficult time in American history.
Ancient Book Burning
Bradbury’s Firemen lived in a far-off future. However, as author Rebecca Knuth pointed out, book burning has had a long history throughout the world. She described this history in her books Libricide and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries.
For example, in 213 B.C.E., the Chinese emperor Qin Shihuangdi ordered that books be placed in large bonfires. Although the emperor did not really want to eliminate all books, with fewer books available, he hoped that he could better place scholars and writers under his control. History books were specifically targeted. The emperor didn’t want his subjects comparing him to more successful rulers of the past.
War is another reason for book burning. “A lot of ancient book burning was a function of conquest,” Knuth explained. For example, the Library of Alexandria in Egypt was one of the largest libraries in ancient times. Since the printing press had not been invented yet, books were copied by hand, one-by-one. This meant the only examples of many books could only be found in Alexandria. Scholars from throughout the world would travel there to study. The library was destroyed over the course of several wars. In 48 B.C.E., the army of Julius Caesar set fire to the library while in pursuit of Caesar’s enemy, Pompey. The library was finally destroyed by the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 642 C.E. In the fires at Alexandria, some books were simply lost forever.
The Printing Press
The printing press, invented in 1440 C.E., made book burning less effective, according to Knuth. Now that books could be printed quickly and mechanically instead of by hand, more books could be made. Learning, once reserved only for the wealthy and powerful, was available to anyone who could read. Completely destroying a book became difficult because there were many more copies of each title.
With more books and more readers, some rulers worried that books would encourage their subjects to question their authority. Although it was not possible to destroy every copy of a book, book burning became a powerful way for a ruler or a conquering army to show their strength. Books capture the knowledge, hopes, and dreams of a society. Burning them can send a strong message. For example, the British burned the U.S. Library of Congress during the War of 1812. Many libraries were destroyed throughout Europe during World War II.
“Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill,” said author Barbara Tuchman in a 1980 address at the Library of Congress. “Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible.”
Modern Book Burning
In modern times, according to Knuth, people who burn books often portray themselves as victims, even if they are actually the ones in power. The most infamous book burnings of the twentieth century were performed in Germany by Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in the 1930s. The Nazis claimed that innocent Germans citizens were the targets of dangerous Jewish enemies. “This legislation is not anti-Jewish, but pro-German,” Hitler said in 1935 in regard to his policies. “The rights of Germans are thereby to be protected against destructive Jewish influences.”
In 1981, Sinhalese Buddhists set fire to the Jaffna Public Library in the Asian country of Sri Lanka. The Sinhalese make up the majority of Sri Lanka’s population. The library contained nearly 100,000 rare books about the history and culture of another group of people who live in Sri Lanka called Tamils. Even though the Sinhalese outnumbered the Tamils, they believed that their Buddhist beliefs were threatened by the Tamils, who practiced Hinduism.
Digital Books at Risk Too
Many people think that computers have solved the problem of book burning. Today, librarians and archivists copy paper books using digital scanners. Once these books are saved as computer files, the books can be read on a computer, tablet, or smartphone. However, as Knuth warns, books can be lost in ways other than fire.
“We have technology to preserve so much knowledge, we just have to be careful,” Knuth said. “If you don’t keep morphing it to an updated form of technology, it doesn’t matter if you made copies if you can’t access them.”
Sometimes books are saved using a type of software that stops being manufactured. As a result, newer computers might not be able to read these older book files. Archivists try to head off this problem by saving books in formats that seem to be popular and that have been around for a while. Portable Document Format (PDF) is frequently used to save book files.
Even if computers can always read an electronic book file, it is possible to lose books in another way. Although electronic files take up much less physical space than books, libraries must have powerful computer servers with enough memory to save so many files. “A few years ago, we were talking about gigabytes and then terabytes,” says Smithsonian Institution archivist Lynda Schmitz Fuhrig. “Now we’re getting into the area of petabytes.”
Instead of burning books, some books can disappear if libraries are not given the time, money, and equipment to store them. Whether the cause is burning them or a lack of money and space for them, Knuth says, books are destroyed for one main reason: an individual thinks that one type of information is more important than another.
As Knuth explained, “That’s why power is so scary. . . . [Power] allows you to put into effect the logic of your own beliefs.”
Or as one character in Fahrenheit 451 proclaims, “A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Burn it. Take the shot from the weapon. Breach man’s mind. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man?”
Learn how comic books were once the target of book burning at the Newseum Institute.
See how libraries preserve books electronically at the Library of Congress.