These Things Called Books

2 min
 (2013 M. Rader Photography)

Books are powerful things. They can inspire, but sometimes they can be feared, then banned, and even burned. Meg Waite Clayton has this Perspective.

It was a night of extraordinary beauty: a torchlight parade with young people singing and carrying books. Forty thousand cheered as, in a spectacular display of heat and light, 25,000 books—gathered from stores and libraries based on lists put together largely by students—were burned.

Days later, Joseph Goebbels, who had proclaimed those books “un-German” in Berlin’s Opera Square, was named the German Minister for Popular Enlightenment.

“Un-German.” “Un-patriotic.” Nationalism so often defines itself not by who we are but by who we exclude.

Perhaps Hemingway, an American, was “un-German.” H.G. Wells. Trotsky. But Hitler’s Germany banned its own too: Albert Einstein. Karl Marx. Erich Remarque, whose "All Quiet on the Western Front" brought the experience of the WWI German soldier, Hitler’s own “volk,” to the larger world.

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Banned. Burned. Vilified.

There was nothing beautiful about the burning of 25,000 books on May 10, 1933, but put yourself in the shoes of those young Nazis, freed to express their rage with spectacular flourish; applauded for doing so.

Just a few years earlier, Berlin was among the most liberal cities in the world. Germany's Nazi party received only 2.6 percent of its vote. The city banning literature was Boston, which objected to a Scribner’s installment of Hemingway’s "A Farewell to Arms."

Immoral. Corrupting. Un-American.

Every reading of a book is a collaboration between reader and writer. The reader considers: Do I agree? Do I object? Does this change the way I see the world, in ways subtle or grand?

It’s inconvenient to those who would control our thoughts to allow alternatives. Other ways of being German. Patriotic. American.

How does one instill blind obedience to a leader? A party? The kind of hatred of others totalitarianism depends on—hatred of others who just might, if we are allowed to inhabit their lives through literature, move our hearts to understand, admire, and even love?

Vilify the thoughts of others. Tell them only you know the truth. Destroy opposing views and those who would commit them to paper, or publish them, or read. They are such a danger, these things called “books.”

With a Perspective, I’m Meg Waite Clayton.

Meg Waite Clayton is the author of seven novels. She lives on the Peninsula.

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