College Quarterly
Fall 2004 - Volume 7 Number 4
Notes Burning Books

by Howard A. Doughty

Long before Ray Bradbury's novel Fahrenheit 451 (to say nothing of Michael Moore's movie, Fahrenheit 9/11), people were in the habit of burning books, destroying pictures and generally rooting out the communication of anything that they did not want to hear, see or read about. Plato, the iconic ancient Greek savant, wanted to ban poetry. The enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau wanted to ban theatre. The Taliban blew up ancient religious artefacts. In the United States, lots of radio stations wanted to ban Elvis Presley. The wife of ex-US Vice-President Al Gore carried on a sustained attack on contemporary rock music. US Secretary of State Colin Powell's son (currently wielding a virtual axe for the Federal Communications Commission) wants to make sure Super Bowl fans never see another female nipple. So it goes.

My New York friend, Kurt Vonnegut, has decried censorship. He should know. His novel, Slaughterhouse Five, was burned by the authorities in Drake, North Dakota. He was offended, but he was also sanguine. Not so long ago, they wouldn't have been content to burn his book; they would have burned him too.

If I could invent a religion, this would be its doctrine: free speech. If it had a house of worship, it would be a library. If it had a saint, it would be my daughter, who would represent all future generations. Her official name is Alexandria. She was named for a library.

In 643, when Amrou ibn al-As raised the flag of Mohammed above the walls of Alexandria, Egypt, he asked the Caliph Omar what to do with the Library. This is what he said:

"If the books are in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for the book of Allah more than suffices. If they are not in accordance, there is no need to preserve them."

It took six months to burn the half million or so books. They were used to heat the public baths.

Don't get me wrong. I do not wish to speak especially ill of Islam. After all, Muslims are owed a great intellectual debt. While Christian Europe endured its own "dark ages", the treasures of antique wisdom were kept secure by Islamic scholars. Without them, the works of Aristotle, and Aristophanes and all sorts of others—playwrights and poets, sages and scientists—would have been more completely lost. So might more of the thoughts of Diogenes the Cynic. As I explain elsewhere in this edition of The College Quarterly, Cynics have been among the most faithful defenders of free speech, and free libraries. Good for them.

The book notes in this issue are all about libraries and librarians, which are mentioned all too little in our culture and celebrated even less. Only two librarians from contemporary popular culture come quickly to my mind. One was the villain in Umberto Eco's novel, The Name of the Rose. He was a librarian who wanted to destroy Aristotle's book on comedy. Apparently, he succeeded. The other was Marion the librarian in the Broadway production, The Music Man. Enough said.

The books I write about here are of uneven quality, durability and importance. Some are better than others, but none of them totally stink up the shelves. Of course, as an aspirant Cynic, I am more concerned about censorial readers than incompetent writers.

Read freely!

Howard A. Doughty is the Reviews Editor of The College Quarterly. He can be contacted at He would especially enjoy hearing from people who would be interested in writing book reviews.


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2004 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology