September 10th, 2010

reading again


One of the scenes in a movie that makes me cry every time I see it is the very end of The Name of the Rose. The library full of books--painstakenly copied or written by hand--is engulfed in flame, and thousands upon thousands of pages of text are irretrievably lost. There's a similar scene written in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. During the blitz in London during World War II, a German bomb hits a library and hundreds of books are destroyed. Even that scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where Elsa takes Henry's diary to Berlin and piles upon piles of books are being burned makes me cringe.

I always feel an immense sadness when I hear or read or otherwise discover the destruction of books. Destruction by fire hits me the hardest, I suppose because fire is so effective at transforming the book into an unrecognizable pile of ash. It doesn't matter which books are being destroyed--could be the collected works of Nicholas Sparks, the Twilight series, really bad fan-fic in bound form or the Palin ghostwrite--I'd still be vicerally upset upon seeing such writing burn.

I know part of this comes from my being a bibliophile in general. I've had my nose stuck in books since I was old enough to hold them myself. Every flat surface in my house has at least half a dozen books on it, and part of the fireplace rehab involves adding a good 55 extra linear feet of bookshelf space to the house. I'm certain it will be full within 18 months. I have difficulty getting rid of books, even if they're outdated or bad or unlikely to be re-read or otherwise not particularly useful to me. And if I do get rid of books, they go to someplace like Half Price Books with the hope that they'll be recycled, put into someone else's hands. Anything but destroyed.

Part of it also comes from a not-so-secret desire to be a writer. To have my thoughts and ideas and stories put into print is a fantasy that I have had since as long as I can remember. One day, I know, I'll get around to having enough material to put into a cohesive narrative of some form or another and then I'll go through the agonizing process of having editors, agents and houses reject it over and over and over again. A book is the end result of my fantasy and dream. So the destruction of something I value, something that I want to accomplish one day, something that I think is one of the greatest achievements of human creation and intellect, is just horrific to me.

And I think part of it comes from a somewhat liberal idea that books, that ideas written down, have some sort of intrinsic value regardless of content. The most important invention of all time--or at least in the top five, we're told in history classes--was the invention of the printing press. Writing allows us to preserve history, to express our ideas, to exchange thoughts. It allows us to endure beyond our short time on this earth. It gives us an avenue to have conversations with people miles or decades away from us. I think for someone like me, someone who doesn't really have an organized faith to turn to, the collection of human ideas substitute for the devine. Again, it doesn't matter what those ideas are, but that humans have been expressing their ideas in the written form since as long as we've been able to pick up sticks and draw in the sand, that's what matters. This writing to share ideas is part of who we are, and to quelch those ideas no matter how abhorrent or wrong or dangerous or otherwise "bad" they might be, is morally wrong to me.

I realize of course that the burning of a book in a symbolic gesture is also the expression of an idea. I realize that it's a protected "speech" that has as much validity and protection under the law (so long as no one's burning down houses in the meantime) as the writing of this post or the dictation of Mark Twain's authobiography. I realize that the times have changed from that 14th century library in The Name of the Rose, so it's fairly straightforward and easy to obtain another copy of the book that's being burned in symbolic gesture. Hell, these days it can be downloaded onto a Kindle or iPad in pretty short order. For however many Qurans that are burned tomorrow, if any, hundreds more will probably be printed within no time.

But while I know that the guy in Florida is trying to hurt Muslims world wide by his actions, I wonder if he's also trying to hurt me and others like me. I don't particularly value his sacred text any more or less than I do the Quran. But I value text. I wonder if my vaule of text is something he also symbolically destroying.