The History of Book Burning

"He who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.”


When we think of burning books, the first images that come to mind are usually those of the Nazi regime, who notoriously burned books in massive bonfires, especially during the summer of 1933. You can see one example of this immortalized on-screen in as unlikely a place as Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. But books have been burned for almost as long as they have existed, put to the torch by a wide variety of people, for a host of different reasons.

The earliest recorded instance of mass book burning took place in 213 BCE, when Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered numerous books burned as a method of consolidating power. “His basic objective was not so much to wipe out these schools of thought completely,” writes historian Lois Mai Chan, “as to place them under governmental control.” Similar motives would haunt many of the state-sponsored book burnings that would follow in the years to come.

According to historians like Chan, Huang was concerned that he would be compared unfavorably to rulers of the past, and so he targeted books of history, poetry, and philosophy. This underscores something that many of the state sponsors of book burning share in common. 

According to author Rebecca Knuth, whose books include Libricide and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries, most of the individuals responsible for organized book burnings over the years have seen themselves as victims – even and especially when they were the ones in power.

“With the printing press,” writes Knuth, “you had the huge rise of literacy and modern science and all these things. And some people in authoritarian regimes, in a way they want to turn back the effects of the printing press.”

But we are, perhaps, getting ahead of ourselves. Long before the printing press, books were already being burned. Sometimes as methods of direct government control – as with Emperor Huang – and sometimes as a result of conquest, such as the repeated burnings of the Library of Alexandria, one of the greatest repositories of knowledge in the world at the time. One of the earliest and most infamous of these occurred in 48 BCE, when Caesar pursued Pompey into Egypt.

Sometimes these burnings were an intentional act of war, as when the Library of Congress burned during the War of 1812, while other times books were casualties of circumstance. No one knows, after all, how many books were destroyed by the many bombs that fell on major cities throughout Europe and Japan during World War II.

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in the early 15th century changed everything, however. With the ability for books to be rapidly produced at scale, the capacity for information to be disseminated grew exponentially. This led to a rise in literacy across Europe, and changed every aspect of book production – and destruction.

printing press

“Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature,” wrote John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, “but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself.” Despite this widely-held opinion, however, plenty of people throughout history have found cause to burn books. 

In ancient Rome, rulers had books containing “the predictions of oracles and details about celebrations like the Bacchanalia” burned in order to prevent “disorder and the spread of foreign customs,” according to Roman historian Livy, writing in the 1st century CE. During the medieval period, church officials burned the writings of those who opposed church positions, including Giordano Bruno, who was, himself, also burned at the stake in 1600 CE. 

Even today, book burnings are not unheard of. Members of al-Qaida burned books when they invaded Mali and Timbuktu in 2012, and right now, right here in America, books are being challenged, pulled from libraries, and the rhetoric of book burning fired up (no pun intended) once again.

Related: How Books Really Get Banned

Indeed, the United States has been far from free of the smoke of burning books over the years. In 1956, none other than the Food and Drug Administration burned nearly seven tons of books by Wilhelm Reich, whose works included such titles as The Sexual Revolution and The Mass Psychology of Fascism. (Don’t feel too bad for him, though; he also peddled pseudoscientific theories about “orgone accumulators,” which he claimed could cure cancer.) 

In more recent years, book burnings have been less likely to be handled directly by the government than by groups of “concerned citizens.” In 1973, a North Dakota school board threw “objectionable” books into the school furnace, while there were at least half-a-dozen high-profile burnings of Harry Potter books beginning in 2001, usually led by church groups.

Nor was Harry Potter the first popular work to be so specifically targeted. In the 1980s, similar burnings took place across the U.K., targeting Salman Rushdie’s controversial novel The Satanic Verses. While these burnings tend to be smaller in scope than the state-sponsored ones, they send a similar message. “To show your disgust or your dislike for the book, you just burn it,” summarized the organizer of one of the burnings targeting Rushdie’s book.

Related: 43 Banned Books That Are Still Powerful Today

One of the best-known instances of book burning, however, is one that hasn’t actually happened – at least, not yet. Ray Bradbury’s dystopian sci-fi novel Fahrenheit 451 – named for the temperature at which paper combusts – details a future in which books have been banned, and are destroyed by “firemen” who root them out and burn them.

“A book is a loaded gun in the house next door,” says one of the characters in Bradbury’s classic about the enduring value of literature, and the dangers of mass media and “thought control.” As is often the case in real life, the forces in control of society are afraid of books and the knowledge they contain in Bradbury’s dystopia. Books are outlawed supposedly because they are confusing and depressing, filling people with unnecessary thoughts that merely complicate their lives.

A lot has changed in the centuries since Qin Shi Huang organized the first known state-sponsored book burning in 213 BCE, but in many ways the reasons why books are in danger today are very similar to what they were hundreds or even thousands of years ago. 

“Books are the carriers of civilization,” said Barbara Tuchman at her 1980 address at the Library of Congress. Since time immemorial, burning books has been the dominant group’s reactionary response to ideas they find threatening and can’t control. And it's why we must remain vigilant, so that books can continue to carry civilization forward, untouched by flame.