Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

The Joy of Burning Books

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The Joy of Burning Books

Many undeservedly famous people deserve ridicule – bimbos of both sexes, celebrated only for their substance abuse, flagrant overspending, run-ins with the law and disastrous relationship choices – or the reality TV “stars” who are ordinary in every way except for their overinflated egos.

However, I’m going to focus on a recently much-discussed figure who has achieved fame solely for expressing a notoriously stupid idea. People all over the world have stupid ideas, so why does one individual attain celebrity for his? Florida’s Dove World Outreach Center pastor Terry Jones --no relation to the Monty Python actor, who is both funnier and a clearer thinker -- made himself known around the world by proposing to burn copies of the Qu'ran in response to the anniversary of 9/11. The continuing tension between the USA and the Islamic world put media helium in his hot-air balloon for a few heady days. Now he’s backed off from that vow, but no doubt is considering plans to open a Dove World Theme Park in which books and icons from all other world religions can be defaced, flame-thrown, or blown up real good by right-thinking visitors.

Rev. Jones seems in truth little more than a boneheaded fanatic trying desperately to expand his tiny congregation despite his being unaware of the Bible's messages after the part about “an eye for an eye." As far as book burning goes, his suggestion is small potatos, important only symbolically; the Qu'ran has sold at least 800 million copies, is available in many languages and editions, and has been memorized in its entirety by an estimated 10 million huffaz, so burning a few copies will hardly deny its teachings to anyone. The idea is so obviously flawed that even Sarah Palin has criticized it.

I would argue that many others are far more deserving of fame for their book-burning efforts (technically termed biblioclasm or libricide) or more general destruction of culturally-important properties. This form of intellectual violence is all too common in history. Whoever burned the Great Library of Alexandria, for example, is now in some circle of Hell deploring the fact that historians still can’t agree if Julius Caesar, some Caliph or persons unknown were responsible. The Mongols who invaded Baghdad in 1258 destroyed all the city’s libraries, including the House of Wisdom, then the leading centre of scholarship in the world. The Tigris is supposed to have run black for six months from the ink of books thrown into the river. Alexander the Great, with one casual order, caused the obliteration of much of Persepolis, then the capital of the far-flung Persian culture. I read somewhere of a French traveler whose claim to fame was being the last person to visit certain monuments of antiquity, because he traveled with a team of workers who would then demolish the site.

However, the historical person who really deserves the fame temporarily accorded Rev. Bonehead is Bishop Diego de Landa. What? You’ve never heard of him? Landa, once the Bishop of the Roman Catholic diocese of the Yucatan, made his mark by ordering in July, 1562, the destruction of all Mayan written records – bark books (codices), calendar wheels, inscriptions on buildings and the like – in the Yucutan. With a single order he destroyed nearly all the written records of probably the most advanced North American civilization then. He was not the only Spanish religious figure to do to Mayan culture what Spanish soldiers did to the indigenous people they encountered, but his order probably had the greatest negative effect. Much of what we might have learned about the remarkable Mayan civilization went up in flames and shards as a result. Ironically, the Bishop himself wrote a book, Relación De Las Cosas De Yucatán, attempting to summarize the culture and religion of the Maya (this publication now survives only in abridged form). Apparently his arrogance was so grandiose that he felt that Mayan ideas could only be safely filtered to the unwashed through his own worldview. So, despite this hint that he found some interest in the culture he was erasing, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that de Landa was to cultural scholarship what Pete Townshend was to the preservation of electric guitars.

Forget Jones; remember de Landa.

However, I do have a suggestion for Jones. Buy 100 copies of my new book, Time Slip, and burn them. I could use the sales, and there will be no jihadist attacks on American institutions as backlash. This will extend Rev. Bonehead's 15 minutes of fame to 17 or 18, and even give me a little unearned celebrity ("Jones Threatens to Burn Work of Obscure Canadian Poet!"). Heck, I'll post a video on Youtube confessing to being a lapsed Unitarian and agreeing that a poetry is an instrument of the Devil distracting true believers from the only words that count -- Rev. Jones's (and a few in that Bible book).


As in Romans 12:19, John? Pastor Terry would probably like that. Put it in your Youtube video!

That's a good point, Elana. I guess an eye for an eye did mark legal and ethical progress over two eyes for an eye, etc. Perhaps I should have quoted the "Vengeance is mine" line instead.
John Oughton

The Biblical law of "an eye for an eye..." unfortunately gets a bad rap more often than not-- to many it sounds barbaric. Actually, this law marked a rejection of feuding and revenge. The principle-- one of equivalency-- was designated to limit the extent of punishment and discourage cruelty, and is still used in modern jurisprudence. The law was meant to establish proper equivalence in specific cases, and restitution could be monetary or in kind. On that note, I like the idea of pastor Terry Jones being required to acquire a full set of Islamic holy books for the Dove World Outreach Center in Florida, in addition to 100 copies of Time Slip: New and Selected Poems for the new millennium by prophetic Canadian poet John Oughton.

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John Oughton

John Oughton is the author of several books, including Time Slip: New and Selected Poems, published by Guernica Editions.

Go to John Oughton’s Author Page