Setting Fire to Music, Art, & Culture

Mar 7, 2018

Acts of tomecide (or book burning) were carried out in First World War America explicitly for the purpose of suppressing the people who practiced German culture. In this Radio Readers BookByte, Daniel Helbert suggests that might just have been all right.
Credit Wikipedia

Erik Kirshbaum’s book Burning Beethoven derives its title and its central metaphor from a deeply disturbing image: American nationalists setting fire to Ludwig van Beethoven’s sheet music during World War One. It is an incredibly shocking image for music lovers and book lovers alike.

As Kirshbaum argues in the book, such acts of tomecide (or book burning) were carried out in First World War America explicitly for the purpose of suppressing the people who practiced German culture.

But, though these burnings certainly happened, Kirshbaum’s main focus in the book is on how mobs and state actors directed physical and symbolic violence on the German-American people who were reading these books—thus, the book burning is a metaphor rather than an actual cause of German American cultural eradication.

I do not disagree with Kirshbaum that book burnings are a shocking and disturbing spectacle, but I wonder (perhaps over-optimistically) whether such actions are really as effective as many seem to think. In fact, if you would permit me the opportunity to play devil’s advocate for a brief moment, I would like to make the suggestion that book burnings can be a positive event in today’s culture.

There was once a time when book destruction was a true and imminent threat to our ability to preserve culture. However, since we can now generally expect most books to be in multiple print copies at various libraries around the world, and we in the twenty-first century can expect them to be digitized and stored on multiple geographically-separated servers, the act of burning a book no longer carries with it the risk of actually eradicating that book from existence.

That is, of course, not the reason that people burn books—people burn books because it is a symbolic act. The book either represents another culture which the burner wishes they could literally destroy, or the book contains something which offends the reader’s sanctimonious conception of what is morally or socially acceptable and they would rather destroy it than accept a challenge to their ideology. Let’s think about what such actions tell us about the book burners and their chosen victims.

On one level, burning a book is simply a spectacular admission of someone’s desire to hurt living things, like culture—and we as a society are thus made aware of this desire. They have, thankfully, notified us that we should be careful of them, and watch them—lest they try to destroy something that can actually be destroyed. So, I say, go ahead, burn novels or sheet music or whatever you want—the flickers of your pointless flames will merely shed light on your incredible stupidity and they may enable us to prevent you from doing something truly dangerous.

Moreover, the burning of books tells an altogether different story than that the burner wishes to tell: it tells the true story of how important books really are. Burning a book brilliantly illustrates that it is a powerful cultural product that can change the way we think and the way we act. Great books truly and demonstrably change this world—they spit in the face of reactionism and xenophobia and nativism, and they show off what a complicated and beautiful mixed-up culture we have cultivated. The goal of every great author, in my opinion, should be to write a book powerful enough that someone wants to burn it. 

For HPPR, I’m Daniel Helbert in Canyon, Texas.

Credit Langley Air Force Base / Wikimedia