Is it Acceptable to Burn Books?

Image of opened burning book against black background

Books have experienced widespread censorship across the globe. Critically-acclaimed novels such as The Hunger Games, To Kill a Mockingbird, Gone with the Wind and even Harry Potter have been banned in certain communities. When a book is banned, generally it is no longer available in classrooms and bookstores. It is rare when people loathe a novel to the extent that they publicly scorch it.

“The Book of Negroes” is a powerful novel that has received many awards such as the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize, and praise from prominent figures such as Oprah.  However, a group of individuals in the Netherlands disagree with this storm of praise. As a matter of fact, the group torched it. 

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Roy Groenberg is the Chairman of the Foundation to Honour and Restore Victims of Slavery in Suriname

Led by Roy Groenberg, the group organized a public burning of “The Book of Negroes” to encourage censorship. Their heritage dates back to black slaves who suffered in the Dutch colony of Suriname. Thus, they find enormous offense in the word “Negroes” within the title. The novel’s author, Lawrence Hill, did not intend to spark such antagonism. It is titled after a historic document, thus it is meant to commemorate, not offend.      

Lawrence Hill wrote an article in response to this event. He understands and even respects the offensive stigmatization that plagues the word, “Negro.” However, Hill disagrees with Groenberg’s actions. His argument is that novels are expressions of ideas that the author believes the world should know and discuss. Individuals who burn novels destroy the purpose of literature and fail to see how it may be beneficial. Instead, they are silencing the writer in a threatening and futile manner. 

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Written by Irish author, James Joyce, Ulysses is widely considered one of history’s best works of literature

Within the article, Hill provides examples of previous incidents regarding the banning of literature. He describes an event in 1923, which involved the commissioner of the Department of Customs and Excise. Due to profane material, he demanded that the novel “Ulysses” be banned from entering Canada. The book remained in censorship until the deputy minister of the Department of Customs and Excise read the novel. The deputy minister realized that the banning of the book was not necessary, and permitted its access into Canada. Roy Groenberg admitted that he has not read “The Book of Negroes.” Of course, Hill is implying that if Groenberg read the novel, his opinion would have likely changed. The Surinamese Dutch are simply oblivious to the novel’s meaning.

Hill further justifies the cause and effect of previous book burning events. It is always initiated through hatred, and as a result, their act is distinguished as radicalization. Book burning is frequently perceived as a violent death threat towards the author and everyone else who shares the same opinion.

He describes a recent example of book burning. According to Hill, “a preacher from Gainesville, Florida publicly burned a copy of the Qu’ran, despite a direct plea from President Obama to refrain from such a hateful act of religious intolerance” (Hill 15). Scorching novels is never considered an act of heroism. Instead, it is considered hostile and ignorantly unreasonable. Even the President of the United States attempted to prevent this case of book burning.

Hill references infamous book burning incidents executed by the Nazi party and the Spanish Inquisition. He also mentions the Talmud being burned for blasphemy in 1141.

These are groups and incidents nobody wants to be associated with.

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If you Google anything related to book burning, this image or others related to Nazi censorship appear primarily. Book burning as a whole appears sinister, especially since the Nazi party was largely associated with it. This shines a dark light on Groenberg’s group.

Focusing on the Nazi regime, Hill explains that, “tossed into the raging fires were […] works by Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, Helen Keller, Ernest Hemingway, Thomas Mann and Albert Einstein” (Hill 7). The Nazis silenced some of history’s most credible figures in the battle for their ideals. These individuals contributed amazing discoveries for society, yet the Reich worked to silence them from the world. Hill writes that, “To those who would ban them and to those who would defend them, books remain symbols of ideas […] loved by some for the very same reasons that they are despised by others” (Hill 22).  Groenberg’s group wishes to attack “The Book of Negroes.” Just like the Nazi party, they wish to destroy the author’s expression of his ideas, simply due to their disapproval of the title. These actions make them appear overly oppressive and radical to those that did not take offense to the book.

However, he also makes a comparison between the derogatory items accessible in literature and on the internet. He explains that, “you can find all manner of violence, hate, pornography and filth on the internet. We don’t seem to get too exorcised about that” (Hill 22). Hill argues that modern censorship of literature is useless, since everyone can easily discover filth in every corner of the internet or even the film industry.

81Saez2gO5LThis argument is emphasized when Hill states that, “Between the Net and television and film, there is something […] to offend virtually every person on the planet. But heaven forbid that our children read a book about gay penguins in the Central Park Zoo” (Hill 14). Hill is referencing the book, “And Tango Makes Three,” which demonstrates a homosexual relationship between penguins. Of course, individuals were offended by this novel and coveted its censorship. Hill expresses “heaven forbid” as a sarcastic hyperbole to show the preposterous reasoning behind those individuals.

Another prominent aspect that Hill covers, is the fact that both he and Groenberg are enemies with identical beliefs. Hill makes use of a sentence fragment to bluntly state this. He writes, “Literature should get us talking – even when we disagree. […] It should inspire recognition of our mutual humanity. Together” (Hill 29). The “together” is a sentence fragment which suggests that Groenberg and Hill are on the same team. Instead of outright assaulting Hill’s work, they need to debate and criticize. Hill extends this point with an anaphora that allows us to clearly understand Groenberg. He writes, “A book burner is not itching for discussion. A book burner has a match to light, and now!” Clearly, Groenberg is stubborn and does not wish to make reason or understand the author’s message. Instead, all he sees is a title dripping with nefarious poison.  

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Lawrence Hill

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Biervliet. I.J. Steve. “Roy Groenberg.” Stichting Eer en Herstel, WordPress.

<https://stichtingeerenherstel.wordpress.com/bestuur-st-eer-en-herstel/>.

 

“Book burnings in Opernplatz, Berlin.” Nazi Book Burnings, Totally History, 2012.

<http://totallyhistory.com/nazi-book-burnings/>.

 

Cole, Henry. “And Tango Makes Three.” Amazon, Simon & Schuster, 2 Jun. 2015.

<https://www.amazon.com/Tango-Makes-Three-Classic-Board/dp/1481446959&gt;.

 

“Is Print Dead?” Kudos Media, 2014.

<http://kudosmedia.com.au/blog/is-print-dead/>.

 

“Ulysses.” Books, Google.

<https://books.google.ca/books/about/Ulysses.html?id=-lTCBwAAQBAJ&source=kp_cover&redir_esc=y>.

 

“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Youth for Human Rights.

                     Youth for Human Rights International. Web. 8 Oct. 2017.

<http://www.youthforhumanrights.org/what-are-human-rights/universal-declaration-of-human-rights/articles-1-15.html>.

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