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In the Internet age, banning a book can only be symbolic

To be sure, books are far more dangerous than guns. Ideas that offend can often be ideas that change the world, a possibility that is far too dangerous to any sort of status quo.

editorials Updated: Apr 06, 2019 11:03 IST
Hindustan Times
Protesters burning copies of Salman Rushdie's 'The Satanic Verses' in Bradford, UK, 1988. (Getty Images)

Last week, some catholic priests in Poland decided to burn books that they considered sacrilegious. This included the Harry Potter books; the priests considered those offensive because of their central theme of magic. The burning of books in either protest or to prevent people from reading them is not a new phenomenon at all; but it is surprising when it happens in 2019. As books become digitised and can be read on a screen, and as fewer and fewer people read (as opposed to watch stories), perhaps what could have been lost (alongside that glorious musty smell of old books) is the repugnant act of old-fashioned book burning. To book lovers, even imagining the burning of a book is painful. And that is probably why it has been used to great effect in the past. Deleting a file from an e-reader doesn’t quite compare.

The Nazi regime famously conducted an “Action against the Un-German Spirit” across Austria and Germany, plundering libraries and private collections, and publicly burning massive piles of books that the regime of the day considered “Un-German”. From Sigmund Freud and Albert Einstein to Marcel Proust and Franz Kafka, May 1933 saw thousands of books consigned to flames. There was an association in New York called the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, founded in 1873, which even put book burning on their seal, in recognition of it being a worthy goal to be achieved. Its founder, Anthony Comstock, is considered responsible for the burning of 15 tonnes of books.

But in the modern age, governments have found banning far more effective than burning. Burning a book, you see, still requires one to have bought it. As JK Rowling said in response to a Twitter user who threatened to burn both her books and the DVDs of the films based on them, “The fumes from the DVDs might be toxic and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.” Banning was thought to be a far more effective technique, because by simply removing it from circulation, you deny the book notoriety and fame.

To be sure, books are far more dangerous than guns. Ideas that offend can often be ideas that change the world, a possibility that is far too dangerous to any sort of status quo. India has never been shy of banning books; it has banned everything from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses (on religious grounds) to VS Naipaul’s An Area of Darkness (for a negative portrayal of India and Indians). But in an age of fluid boundaries of the Internet (which governments and private companies are trying their utmost to police), banning can also only be symbolic, much like burning. Because ideas don’t die that easily.

First Published: Apr 05, 2019 18:15 IST