“Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too.” – Heinrich Heine, Almansor (1821)
Once there were only books and people on wooden crates, shouting different opinions so that other people would hear and follow in their footsteps. These were thoughts and beliefs. These were soon joined by social perceptions that were passed from person to person through books, first written by hand and then published by printing machines.
It is the nature of our world that every opinion has its counterpart. While it is difficult for a person to suppress views that contradict their own, in the past, the extinction of perception was only a matter of money and power.
The Golden Calf incident
In the past, the absence of human existence, opinion and written documents meant the extinction of certain ideas and secured the wiping of the pages of history by violent means.
Events of burning books, as well as the separation of the heads of opinionated leaders from their necks, even though these were considered extreme acts of revulsion and intimidation, have taken place throughout the existence of humanity.
Beginning with the Golden Calf incident at Mount Sinai mentioned in the Jewish Torah, to the burning of the Library of Alexandria and all its contents by Julius Caesar in 48 B.C., and extending into modern times, this has been done at times when power over democracy has been preferable.
Such acts, although relatively few, have not disappeared from the modern world and continue to accompany humanity, especially in its darkest periods. Such deeds were witnessed by the people of Eastern Europe, where many events took place from the time the Nazi regime took power and throughout its sphere of influence during the Second World War. At that time, burning books was considered contrary to accepted beliefs and perceptions.
Since the burning of Harry Potter books on the grounds that these promote the worship of the devil, barely two years have passed. Along with contemporary printed books, e-books also occupy a place of honour on the shelves of internet stores, and people’s opinions are rarely heard from wooden boxes in the city square.
The internet has changed the rules of the game. The burning of books has become symbolic, and does not necessarily mean the annihilation of an idea. Because of the speed and power of disseminating ideas through social media, and the everlasting ability of secure servers that give life to the written word in electronic media, the extinction of an idea has become almost impossible.
The power of resistance has been diluted, and the symbolism is no longer as shocking as it used to be. Or is that true?!
The power of words in the right order
To understand how much the world has changed in regard to this aspect of idea management, we must first understand the power of words in the right order, and their financial significance to sustaining resistance or an alternative that will always end up becoming political.
An idea, even if written in about 100,000 words on beautifully bound pages, will not become a book if there is no motive of art in it.
An idea, in essence, does not cost a dime until it reaches the stage of application, when a great deal of money is required to maintain it. In its early stages, public support is needed to get an idea ready to move onto its next level.
Every book requires financial investment throughout its life, from the moment the writer sits down to write, all the way through to marketing and selling the book. This is an investment that sometimes has no economic feasibility, and presenting the paper as a work of art is always a financial risk.
The idea ripens when it finds the right funding, and a book will end when the funding ceases, as it suggests that there are no longer potential readers. This is a fundamental change from past times.
Let’s get back to the internet, where the social networks we use today serve all the opposing sides. While the writer and their readers have the right to enjoy a literary work, there are other elements openly calling for the confiscation of books, while referring to them as ideas that should be destroyed rather than as craftsmanship.
This is a resource-intensive and money-driven campaign that uses fictitious trolls and blatant characters whose primary purpose is to prevent the spread of an idea by pushing search results for books into the back pages of search engines—and even worse, by planting doubt among potential readers, thus making particular titles unprofitable.
For example, a recent flattering review of Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, shared in some of the Facebook groups that cover book reviews, has won many unpopular reactions.
The commentators claimed that there is no difference between the book in question and the average page in every daily newspaper. “This is a forbidden act, and we mustn’t co-operate with those who encourage identification with such a terrible character,” they said.
On the other hand, the few who read the book and dared to answer claimed that this book is larger than the sum of its parts. One comment read, “This is a valuable work of art that embodies more literary elements than the single story of an aging pedophile can testify.”
Books are works of art
My book, Reasons to Kill God, got its share of that same argument when it was first published in Hebrew.
Sometimes, I had to put a sheet on the cover of the book in order to get it mailed. This made me understand that my book had become worse than a pornography magazine hidden inside another book.
The very name of the book aroused angry reactions from certain parts of the public, and even a call to boycott the book, although it is not about religion or belief, but a story about a Nazi criminal who sees himself as above the people he despised—a story that was supposed to be warmly accepted in a country like Israel.
At that time, I worked with great effort to persuade readers to trust the art of my writing, to the extent that sometimes, I had to put a sheet on the cover of the book in order to get it mailed. This made me understand that my book had become worse than a pornography magazine hidden inside another book.
Although in my case, the solution seemed simple, I chose not to change the name of the book, but to translate it into other languages and thus spread it more easily. In this aspect, my art has become an international product that requires considerable financial investment in a foreign market, at the expense of reducing its financial stake in my target market.
This result satisfied the opponents of my book, and despite the good reviews and sympathy it has won, it has long sunk on the bestseller charts in Israel. Any discourse it created has been forgotten.
While the victory in this debate was not fully achieved, in the era of social networking, the rapid dissemination of an idea (as well as an act of art) now works in favour of the other side. The e-book bonfire is bigger and more efficient than any physical campfire.
In the absence of potential buyers, even the best piece of art will cease to exist or be forgotten. Our sane and moderate voices that consider books to be works of art, and not just ideas that support or oppose personal opinions, require us to continue ignoring the voices calling for a boycott and keep on buying and reading more books.