Interview with Rebecca Knuth

Rebecca Knuth - an expert on book burning - is an Associate Professor in the Library and Information Science Program at the University of Hawaii. She has written two books on the subject - Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction and Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century.

Abe - Why is book burning such an emotional subject?
RK – “Many people love books and are invested in their contents. They believe that accumulated knowledge provides the basis for civilized existence. Because book burning is associated with barbarism and the disintegration of civilization, it signals that things are out of control and society is under threat. When specific books or categories of books are targeted and destroyed, the individuals who identify with those books know that they themselves, their group, and their beliefs are under attack.”

Libricide by Rebecca Knuth

Abe - Would you say book burnings arise from a mob culture or is it more complex?
RK – “It is more complex, although mob culture can enter into it. Often when mobs burn books, it is because they believe that they have been victimized and are justified in striking back. Burning books is a common way for mobs to protest against a despised power structure or system from which they have been excluded. If the mob is purposeful and targets the books of a specific group or person, they may be convinced that that group or person poses a threat to their group and beliefs or has taken what is theirs. In India, the Hindus riot and destroy the books of Muslims because they are convinced that India should belong to the Hindus and besides, the Muslims are ‘evil.’ In Kashmir, Muslim militants destroyed the books of Hindus as part of generalized attempts to cleanse the area of Hindus and their ‘toxic’ influences.”

Abe - Why are books burnt so often?
RK - “Books store facts and opinions that threaten the beliefs and expansionist political and social agendas of the groups who destroy them. Books are also highly symbolic. Destroying a group’s books is a highly effective way to humiliate, weaken, or enrage your enemy.”

Abe - Why have the Nazi book burnings acquired such infamy?
RK – “The Nazis staged the fires as quasi-Pagan ceremonies. They were declaring a new order through rites normally considered barbaric. It was particularly shocking because Germany was a sophisticated and modern, previously book-loving, society. Through the fires, they were announcing a revolution, affirming their racial and cultural superiority, and renouncing humanism and Western civilization. It was like a public announcement that they were going over to the dark side.”

Burning Books and Leveling Libraries by Rebecca Knuth

Abe - Do you expect book burnings to continue?
RK – “Absolutely - as the world becomes more tribal and polarized along religious, racial, and political lines, groups will try to gain power and visibility by burning books.”

Abe - Don’t people who burn books simply appear crazy?
RK – “American religious groups that burn books may seem silly to some (silly because they don’t pose a serious threat and, because in the eyes of some, they are kitschy and clueless), but they take themselves very seriously. The ceremony is highly symbolic: they are publicly affirming their values, while simultaneously renouncing/attacking the values in the books that they consign to the fires. It is the same pattern as that of the Nazi and most staged book fires. The biggest difference is that the Nazis were in power and could carry through on their mandate to purify culture. In a way, I think it is somewhat courageous of the Fundamentalists to stand up for what they believe in, especially in the face of public ridicule, and they usually don’t burn other people’s books. Unfortunately, they come across as hopelessly simple-minded, and they can’t help but be compromised when they turn their ceremony into a media circus.”

Abe - Don’t book burnings inspire readers/authors to fight even harder for their freedom to write and read what they wish?
RK – “Yes, book burning can bring people out swinging, exhilarated and absolutely sure that this is something worth fighting against. Of course, it helps to be lucky enough to live in a society where fighting for intellectual freedom is an option. One last comment - a book burning is a huge wake-up call. It is easy to muster outrage and rally against it. Other threats to intellectual freedom are insidious and ongoing. Americans have lost a lot of ground to the cool fires of the present administration.”