Katie Bowler on the Need to Respect Books That Other Cultures Value

Continuing our special focus on First Amendment Day today, we welcome the following guest post from someone situated at the intersection of law and literature. Poet Katie Bowler places her own experience with book burning in the context of the history of books as weapons used in attempts to devalue the beliefs of others.–ellen

The recent threat by a fringe-element church in Florida to burn the Qur’an provides us with a compelling reason to reflect on the First Amendment and what it means to us as Americans, as individuals, and as a society. It’s not only about religious freedom and the right to free speech, it also forms our relationship to the books that represent our cultures, religions, and beliefs. The turmoil that the threat generated worldwide gives us a vivid reminder of the protection we have under the First Amendment, but it also reminds us of the need to respect those who value books that may, at times, be unpopular within certain segments of society.

It’s a violent act to burn a book. I lived in New Orleans during the years following Hurricane Katrina, and shortly after the storm a friend suffered extreme psychological problems. In a rage, he burned many of my books and journals. As a writer and as a person, it was an experience I’ve never really gotten over, having held the charred pages that had once been well-worn literary classics full of marginalia and the singed spirals of my journals. It was an act of violence at a personal level, but one that’s happened too many times at larger societal levels.

One book I lost was The Great Gatsby, a copy in which I’d been scribbling notes since I was a teenager, poring over how Fitzgerald could turn a phrase. Losing my copy took away part of my nostalgia for the book, but I came to see how the story couldn’t be taken away any more than my desire to write could have been taken away by burning my journals. That loss gave me a glimmer of an idea of what it must be like to have a book that represents one’s deepest religious beliefs degraded through a burning – or the threat thereof. Every time I hear of libraries being burned or someone threatening to burn a religious text, I recall sifting through ashes to find pieces of my books, as though I might have been able to put them back together.

Terry Jones’s threat was an unjust affront to Muslims, and a deeply wrong one. He’s not alone though. He fits into our human history with too many who did burn books, often in assumption of “leadership” or signs of conquest: classics in ancient China; Jews burned alongside Torahs; Christians burning the entire library at Antioch; Caesar’s soldiers “accidentally” burning the library at Alexandria; the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of London ordering the burning of Ovid’s “Art of Love” and other “immoral” books; Spanish priests burning Mayan scrolls; Catholics burning Luther’s version of the Bible. There are too many more examples.

Quietly, though, at extraordinary moments in history, people have carried forbidden words until times when they could translate memorized lines into writing. Books can be burned, writing and reading forbidden, but belief and human will cannot be destroyed.

Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, who spent much of her career unable to publish in her homeland under Stalin, memorized her poems. She later wrote of spending 17 months in prison lines in Leningrad, where a stranger “… said into my ear / (everyone whispered there) – ‘Could one ever describe / this?’ And I answered – ‘I can.’” Akhmatova’s “Requiem” tells of terror under Stalin. A voice temporarily quieted ultimately shared the story of many.

Books that people hold dear shouldn’t fuel war and hatred, but they are too often used as weapons—the religions they represent, often weapons too. Leo Tolstoy’s The Kingdom of God Is Within You was banned at home in Russia before it helped to inspire movements of nonviolent resistance, held to the heart by Mohandas K. Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Tolstoy’s book challenged Christianity to look to its own commandments and written truths to find the way to treat others. Gandhi and King heard him. Jones should listen too—as should the other millions among us who use books of faith as instruments of terror and oppression, burning as a sign of righteousness. If we’re to learn anything about and from others, we must respect the books, words, and beliefs they hold dear.

Katie Bowler is author of State Street (Bull City Press, 2009) and is assistant dean for communications at UNC School of Law.