Interview with Shaun Bythell

Have you ever burned a book? Try burning an old telephone directory – it’s much harder than it sounds. Lots of ash is created and you have to rip out handfuls of pages to tempt the flames. Shaun Bythell, who runs The Bookshop in Wigtown, Scotland, knows exactly what it’s like. He staged a public book burning in May 2005. You can see it by going to YouTube.com and searching for ‘Wigtown book burning.’

Shaun has kindly explained the reasoning behind his book burning...

“The reasons for doing the book burning were two-fold. Firstly, I wanted to help promote Wigtown as Scotland's National Book Town, and with no advertising budget I had to think of some way of getting media coverage without paying for it. It was probably testing the notion that all publicity is good publicity to its limit, but I think that everyone who took the time to actually think about what we were doing understood our reasons for doing it. The knee-jerk ‘book burning is a bad thing’ brigade will never open their minds to look beyond the historical associations, and think about what might have motivated our event - they'll always assume that anyone who burns a book is a Nazi regardless of how far from the truth this is. These people are probably more dangerous than the people who burn books.

“I attempted to reason with some of the people who attacked me by saying ‘The Nazis burned books’. My response was that the trains arrived on time in Nazi Germany, does that mean that every time a train arrives on time in the UK today it is driven by a Nazi? I got a lot of confused looks. Although there are historical associations, there is no causal link between burning books and oppression, and to assume that everyone who burns books is an oppressor is a sign of an underdeveloped mind.

“The second reason for doing it was to highlight the fate of books which have reached the end of their useful life and to see whether, by raising the issue, anyone could suggest a possible alternative to dumping them in a landfill site, which is what largely happens to old books with pages missing, damp damage, or no commercial value.

“We burned about 5,000 books. Selection was based entirely on commercial value, so most of them were in damaged or unreadable condition, or just so out of fashion and with so little value if they ever became fashionable again that they were not worth holding on to. We torched books on all subjects, fiction, non-fiction, including disbound old bibles and theological texts from most religions. We didn't aim to offend, but inevitably people who want to take this personally will find a way of convincing themselves that by burning a single unreadable copy of a book of which there are millions of copies, you are somehow attacking their religion.

“Norrie, who works in the shop with me, built the fire-sculpture. He was nervous that it wouldn't light, as was I, but he's such a good engineer that the thing went like a rocket. It was quite a spectacle, and the burning pages drifting off across the fields were very pretty. Some of the half-burnt pages landed near the crowd and the kids loved them. They were more intrigued by the missing words than the text which survived. Someone made a collage from them.

“I didn't feel any remorse about burning the books, as a dealer you have no choice when it comes to dead stock. If you don't keep it moving you'll end up with a shop full of books nobody wants to buy. To be honest I felt a sense of relief as it went up in smoke, both because it burned OK and because it was out of my stock room and no longer causing congestion.

“As well as a sense of relief I felt quite proud, because Norrie had worked so hard on the design and the build, and it was a very impressive spectacle. Everyone there knew why we were doing it, and we all had a good time, there was a barbecue and plenty to drink, kids playing and people enjoying themselves. People turned up to see a spectacle, not to support an oppressive ideology, or rant against someone else's point of view. It was fun.

“I suppose I didn't feel strange burning them because it was like cremating a corpse, rather than burning a living person. The books were dead in as much as nobody would ever read them again. We used a quotation from Rabbi Akiba Ben Joseph in our publicity material, which was ‘The paper burns, but the words fly away.’”