It is viscerally awful when any individual or nation attacks that cornerstone of knowledge, advancement and civilization –books. In their many forms, these are the means by which we create that uninterrupted expanding horizon of human thought and potential for action. Little surprise it is then, that burning books is a favored pastime of thugs who resent culture, science and progress.

The beginnings of book burning are lost in time. The Library of Alexandria, at its height containing over half a million manuscripts, was burned down at least three times after its founding around 330 BCE. It is said that in 213 BCE, the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, insistent on ensuring that his regime was not compared unfavorably to anyone preceding him, and keen to clean a new historical slate, went on a book burning spree.


Between those times and today, there have been countless episodes of book incineration orchestrated by varied protagonists. Girolamo Savonarola’s religiously inspired burning of “vanities” in late fifteenth century Florence and Mao Zedong’s purging of anti-communist literature in the mid-twentieth century are just two of many notable outbreaks. If there is any dark humor to be obtained from this lamentable history, it is that, in 2002, a book burning organized by some pastors in Maine, US, had to be modified into a book-slashing event because they were unable to secure a bonfire permit from the local fire department.

Over the millennia, there have not been many innovations in book burning. Other than finding new ways to set the things on fire, the idea is rather elementary. You pick your venue and decide whether you are opting for the charismatic holding of the book in the air while the pages are licked by serpentine flames, turning black and then into wafers of sparkling iridescent orange as they disintegrate and get carried away in the wind, or whether instead you prefer the more dramatic spectacle of the Nazi-style funeral pyre, with the culturally illiterate hurling their favored volumes onto the growing mound and shaking their fists in bland satisfaction.


Even when aerial bombing was invented, its low precision made it impossible to go after books. You might catch a few in a volley that happened to ignite a building containing them.

That has now changed. The advent of guided munitions and missiles has brought within the fold of human atrociousness the possibility of deliberately attacking publishing houses and the workers who peacefully go about contributing to this marvelous human enterprise.

Precision book bombing – a new frontier in this treachery to civilization

Seven people killed, over 20 injured, and tens of thousands of books destroyed. What was Russia anticipating? That copies of Zhadan’s “Sky above Kharkiv” would be used as projectiles, causing fatal concussions to their invading forces, especially if they were hit on the head corner-first by a book in hardback format?

This was a brazen attack on a production node of Ukrainian culture, and within the wider context, an affront to humanity’s timeless and global project to secure our thoughts for the benefit of generations yet to be.


It isn’t a new pattern in this war. There are other accounts of cultural destruction, just one being the deliberate burning of the library in the Church of Petro Mohyla, a Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Mariupol, whose book collection apparently contained unique copies of books in the Ukrainian language. All of this, of course, is part of a much wider documented attempt to erase Ukrainian culture and identity.

The silver-lining to all this, if it is not too crass to suggest that there could be one at all, is that electronic media has largely relegated book burning to a symbolic gesture. The physical erasure of a book is now far less likely to remove it entirely from the human collective conscience. Of course, that doesn’t make up for the destruction. It is heartening to hear that the Howard G. Buffett Foundation will step in to help rebuild the printing presses.

What autocrats never comprehend is that they debase themselves for posterity in these attacks. The cultural vandalism of the Nazis has almost become defined by the imagery of their book burning on May 10, 1933, when around 20,000 volumes were consumed by flames as Goebbels ranted about morality and decency in the state.

The vastness of that project to gather and propagate human knowledge and experience might well be erased by a rogue asteroid one day, but it is much more powerful than an invading army or a rabid propagandist.


Quotes have poured forth from luminaries over the ages in an attempt capture the essence, the barbarity of this activity. John Milton observed in the 17th century that burning books was to burn reason itself and the German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine prophetically suggested in the 19th century that people who burn books eventually burn people. Helen Keller, an author and disability rights activist, graced us with one of the most straightforward rebukes, directed towards the students planning the bonfires in Berlin:

“History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them. You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels, and will continue to quicken other minds.”

If one needs a clear insight into whether the cause for which a nation or people fights is one of darkness and regression, one against the essential precepts of civilization, observe how they treat books and the people who write and make those books.

It is a full bookshelf that stands between us and the chimpanzees; to keep it full is for what good people fight.

Charles Cockell is Professor of Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh.

The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily of Kyiv Post.

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