by Brian Clarey



Okay, so Pastor Jones was dissuaded from setting fire to his pile of Korans down in that hotbed of rationality known as Florida. Still, it’s a good time to remember that book burnings are a time-honored way of showing murderous disdain for other people’s thoughts. Take the Koran, which was first ritually burned way back in 650 or so, when it existed as an oral history and in at least three transcribed versions. It was, in fact, a Musilm, Uthman ibn ‘Affan, who acted as the book’s first editor, burning all versions of the text that deviated from his collection.


Conceived as the greatest accumulation of knowledge in the world at the time it was built back in 300 BCE, this library was felled by fire the first time by Julius Caesar, who did it accidentally while making a statement to Acchilas in a battle against Ptolemy XIII. Its contents were sacked by Emperor Aurelian when he took the city in 270 or so. It was destroyed for good in 642 by the armies of Amr ibn al ‘Aas after the Battle of Heliopolis — because its writings weren’t “in accordance with the Book of Allah.”


In 213 BCE, Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang burned all philosophy and history books that did not originate from his home province, destroying centuries of thought and learning. He followed up by arresting a group of dissenting intellectuals and then burying them alive.


As far as combustible literature goes, the Torah is at the top of the list. The first recorded burning was in the year 50, by a cruel Roman soldier. It was set afire at the feet of one of Judaism’s 10 Martyrs, Haninah ben Teradion, while he himself was roasting on a stake. Apostomus’ burning of the Torah is named as one of the five catastrophes that the Jews have endured over the centuries. In the 1480s, leader of the Inquisition Torquemada preferred the Talmud when setting his bonfires, but liked the smell of a burning Koran too. Stalin also was fond of burning these sacred scrolls.


The Nazis get their own entry on this list, as befitting the great burners of books they were. And they didn’t stop at Jewish scripture — everything that contradicted Nazi philosophy was destroyed by fire in those dark years, including works by Albert Einstein, Friedrich Engels, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Franz Kafka, Helen Keller, Jack London, Karl Marx, Marcel Proust, Upton Sinclair and HG Wells. Seriously: Helen Keller?


Among the indignities heaped upon Peter Abelard, known more for his tragic love affair with Héloïse than his groundbreaking theological writings, was a church synod in Soissons, France condemning his work and teachings as heresy. As punishment he was forced to burn his own book. And this was after he had been castrated for impregnating Héloïse.


Martin Luther started out as an idealistic young priest who took it upon himself to translate the bible from Latin into German. But before fnishing that he wrote his “95 Theses,” which condemned aspects of contemporary Catholicism like the selling of indulgences, which posited that it was possible to buy one’s way into heaven. His bible, published in 1522, was burned 100 years later at the behest of Pope Urban VIII.


Sometimes book burnings seem a little counter-intuitive. In 1842, for example, the new director for the School of the Blind in Paris ordered every book written in Braille to be burned — he was in favor of Boston Line Type, a rival system, destined to become the Betamax of the form.


Yep, not even the boy wizard is safe from those who would destroy his message — although these books by JK Rowling were burned not at the gates of Hogwart’s by Voldemort but by churches in Alamagordo, NM and Charleston, SC. The books have been banned outright in schools in the United Arab Emirates and Iran.


Okay, so it was mostly copies of Rubber Soul and Revolver, but there were more than a few newspapers, magazines and books that mentioned the Fab Four set aflame in the American South in 1966, after John Lennon proclaimed that he and his mop-topped crew were “more popular than Jesus.” His words attracted ire from church groups and the Klan, among others. George Harrison, the quiet Beatle, kept it in perspective: “They’ve got to buy them before they can burn them,” he reportedly said.