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A burning issue

columns Updated: Sep 11, 2010 21:58 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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At 11 o'clock on Saturday morning, the 153rd anniversary of the 1857 massacre of travelling migrants by a Mormon militia at Mountain Meadows in Utah, America, I indulged in some good old book-burning.

I must admit, as a weekend liberal who finds it natural to decry the burning of books, whether it be Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses or the far more disquieting Elements of Workshop Technology Vol. 1 by S.K. Hajra Choudhary, watching the book I set aflame on my modest balcony was a most wonderful experience.

One of the features of book-burning that never gets covered by the media is its aesthetic side. As I lit the edges of the hardback and watched the pages take light, what I felt was an almost religious experience. It's not as easy as it seems. The trick is to start at the side edge of the page (not at the top corner that lacks the hinterland for the flame to feed on) with a match or a lighter. I had four false starts yesterday in which the multiple flames stopped before they could spread and merge into each other, leaving only charred marks like badly made chapatis.

But once the fire got going, it was a thing to behold. Fire in the morning is largely invisible. So as I poked and prodded the burning book, making sure that one page of fire turned and caught another, I saw through the heat shimmer that made the words on the pages wobble, before the pages themselves curled and crinkled, all the while sending ash floating upwards like tiny crows. With the book splayed out like a broken deck chair, all that remained was the charred armour of the book with its belly converted into black dust.

Ever since I've been following people burning books, I've noticed a few things responsible for taking the spotlight away from the beauty of the burning of a book. For one, we are interested only about angry congregations. All hot-headed people burning books are book-burners, but not all book burners are hot-headed people. It's also not so much these mobs detesting the book they're burning. If that were the case, they would have read out passages with accompanying explanations of why they were rotten. They burn books because they detest the folks who love the book.

The other thing about book-burning is that it's really an innocuous act, far less hurtful to the author or his admirers than, say, a damaging review. At a very practical level, burning a book means procuring the book, thus giving something back either in terms of money or attention to the book's writers and publishers.

Of course when some folks invest a book with religious importance, like a Britney Spears fan and her signed copy of Britney Spears' Heart to Heart, you have to decide whether it's worth your while to piss such people off by burning it in public.

“Tonight you do well to throw in the fire these obscenities from the past. This is a powerful, huge and symbolic act that will tell the entire world that the old spirit is dead,” blurbed the Nazi Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels at a gala book-burning evening in Berlin where more than 100,000 people burned more than 20,000 books. (With one book between five Aryans, didn't they fall short?) All this did, however, was to tell the entire world that the Germans had gone nuts.

In 213 BC, Chinese emperor Shuh Huang-ti had gone a few steps further when he tried to put an end to reading by burning all the books in his kingdom. With the Chinese still able to read the Riot Act, clearly, he didn't succeed. Goethe, a German friendly toward books (especially the pile that he had written) once witnessed a book being burned in Frankfurt. He compared the event to an execution. I think the young author of The Sorrows of Young Werther was being too melodramatic there, missing out on the whole point of the beauty of a book in flames.

And burning a book is certainly better than chopping one's hand off or stoning someone to death when the mob senses, oh say, that their faith or their way of life has been tarnished. These cud-chewers could do well to form a sort of anti-Oprah Book Club and privately burn a book every week just to get their rocks off.

As a Person of the Book, who knows the simple pleasures of seeing a book burn, I suggest you try it out too. Try it only at home. And start with a paperback.