"That was but a prelude; where they have burned books, they will ultimately also burn people."German original
— Heinrich Heine, from the 1823 tragic play Almansor.
How do you show that your totalitarian regime
and trying to stamp out all free thought
? Or that your Moral Guardians
have crossed the line into Culture Police
? Have 'em hold a good old-fashioned book burning!
The Book Burning is exactly what it sounds like
: the incineration (preferably a big bonfire) of literature that threatens the government's authority or the Moral Guardians
' values. It's Kill It with Fire
used for censorship, or at the very least to make a statement. It doesn't have to be books — movies, music and artwork may also go on the fire. It doesn't necessarily have to be burning, either — dumping the books into a wood chipper or into the sea sends the same message.
Writers usually have pretty strong feelings on this subject.
(Bookstores often have different,
somewhat conflicted, feelings. If someone's buying armloads of books from your store, their intent to burn may not concern you much.) It's worth noting that, while the emotional impact of burning books hasn't changed with the digital age, the physical impact of trying to destroy books is largely mitigated by mass printing and e-format books.
Very much Truth in Television
, but if you're looking for real life examples, here's a list of book burning incidents
and a list of libraries destroyed throughout history
. See why they can't be listed?note
Often goes hand in hand with Persecuted Intellectuals
and You Cannot Kill An Idea
. Compare Breakup Bonfire
, which carries a more personal meaning. Not to be confused with the Burn Book
. Related to the real life event, Bonfire of the Vanities, but not to be confused with The Bonfire of the Vanities
Alternatively the trope can be used in a non-political manner; a group of survivors from an incident may have to burn books just to keep themselves warm.
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Anime & Manga
- In one episode of Fullmetal Alchemist, the homunculi burn down one section of the library to stop Edward from getting information on the Philosopher's Stone.
- The ROD TV series had the British Library burning books that would not fit under their new "unified culture," though the immediate motive seems to have been getting the goat of the bibliophile heroines.
- Library War is all about Japan's libraries trying to save what books are left from the Media Betterment Committee and their bonfires.
- The Jack Chick tract "Dark Dungeons" famously ended with a bonfire scene that had people burning their Dungeons & Dragons materials (as well as other things considered religiously objectionable).
- In true Chick fashion, this is one of the few examples where the burning is presented as a good thing.
- One of the Big Bads of Jack of Fables is named Bookburner. It is a Meaningful Name.
- The Grey Smurfs in The Smurfs comic book story "The Smurf Threat" burn all of Papa Smurf's spell books in order to keep him from finding the spell to make the Grey Smurfs vanish.
- Scott Adams, on the other hand, gleefully takes the bookstores' more positive point of view in one of his books, offering to chip in a few bucks for markers and protest signs for anyone who finds him offensive, as protests and burnings will encourage bigger sales for his books.
- One of the more ridiculous aspects of the Ron the Death Eater treatment given to Princess Celestia in Frigid Winds And Burning Hearts is the mention, in a casual, offhand manner, that she - a ruler who, canonically, maintains a giant library with a wing named after one of the great scholars of antiquity - has a bureau devoted to burning books she finds objectionable.
- The Stalking Zuko Serieshas Firelord Sozin, who kept many original documents and scrolls that he raided from invaded areas and burned everyone else's copies. Also, Zhao's burning of the Fire Nation section of the Wa Shi Tong's library is seen while practical is very unusual.
- The Celestia Code has Twilight doing this in order to ensure Sombra's plan to kill Celestia doesn't happen.
Films — Animated
- In [[South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut, the parents of South Park hold a massive bonfire of Canadian media to protest how Canada produced the filthy comics Terrence & Philip. Later, it escalates into rounding up Canadians and sending them to "happy camps", and eventually results in the US invading Canada and starting World War III.
Films — Live-Action
- In The Life of Émile Zola, Zola's books are burned after he intercedes on behalf of the wrongfully accused Alfred Dreyfus.
- In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, at one point Indy finds himself at Nazi rally where they are burning books. As an archeologist, he can't be happy about it, but he's trying to blend in so he doesn't do anything about it. He does get his father's Grail diary signed by Hitler though.
- In Agora, Christian fanatics destroy the library of the Alexandrian Serapeum, toppling statues and columns and burning scrolls of "pagan filth" in bonfires in the couryard.
- Equilibrium: The dystopian society does this to pretty much any piece of art or literature considered inductive of emotion. They also like to kill dogs for much the same reason.
- Reverend Shaw Moore in Footloose has a My God, What Have I Done? moment when he sees people took his words to the extreme of burning books.
- In a key scene of the film Der alte und der junge König (The Old and the Young King), a German Historical film made under Nazi rule in 1935, King Friedrich Wilhelm I of Prussia is shown throwing into an open fire the beloved French-language books of his son, Crown Prince Friedrich (the future Friedrich II), as well as the Prince's flute. The film - banned after the fall of the Nazis as a piece of propaganda making manipulative use of history - presents this book burning as a positive and necessary act, which was needed in order to "educate" and "toughen up" the young prince, so as to "prepare him for becoming a great ruler".
- Implied in the Stargate backstory. Ra banned literacy on Abydos to prevent its inhabitants from rebelling as their Tau'ri brethren had. The Abydonians manage to keep secret knowledge of hieroglyphics, however.
- Pleasantville has a scene where an angry mob led by the mayor burns books in reaction to the unwelcome changes in the town.
- In Twenty Four Eyes, one book is burned. Ms. Oishi, the Cool Teacher, has been reading a book to her kids in a Japanese fishing village in The Thirties, but the book is deemed to be subversive. After another teacher gets thrown in jail for a while, Ms. Oishi's principal confiscates her book and burns it.
- Non-political variant in The Day After Tomorrow: a few survivors battling the cold hunker down in a massive library. They resort to burning books, but the head librarian refuses to let a Bible be thrown in the mix, not because he's religious, but said Bible was the first book of the library.
- Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is one of the iconic examples of this, set in a world where nearly all literature has been banned and burned. The protagonist is a "fireman", one whose job it is to burn books.
- Early in Don Quixote, the priest and the housekeeper of the eponymous knight go through the chivalry books that have turned the man mad and, in an act of penance, burn most of them. The comments of the priest express the literary tastes of the author, though he offers some sharp criticisms of Cervantes' own works. He does, notably, save Tirant lo Blanc.
- At the conclusion of the novel Auto da Fe by Nobel Prize winner Elias Canetti, the bibliophile protagonist immolates himself on a pile of his own library.
- The Japanese novel Toshokan Sensou is about the conflict between two military organizations after the Japanese government passed a law that allows the censorship of any media deemed to be potentially harmful to Japanese society, including book burning.
- The short story "Earth's Holocaust" from Nathaniel Hawthorne's Mosses from an Old Manse is about a society that burns everything that it finds offensive, including its literature.
- In Anne of Green Gables, Anne watches in horror as her caretaker burns her book containing the Tennyson poem "The Lady of Shalott" as punishment for reading instead of doing her chores.
- The first emperor of the Chi'n Dynasty in Ancient China did such an extreme case of this in Breaking the Wall that all the destroyed knowledge actually created a whole new world known as the Land Born of Smoke and Sacrifice.
- In the Elemental Logic quartet, the Library at Kisha was burned early on in the Sainnite invasion, which is considered a great tragedy. The loss of many books and the country's main center of higher education actually led to the Shaftali losing a significant part of their writing system- the meanings of many of their glyphs (ideographs, used along with an alphabet system or separately as part of a system of telling the future) were forgotten in a short period of time because they were slightly esoteric knowledge to begin with, and no lexicon listing the meanings of all the glyphs survived the burning. A large part of the plot of the third book deals with a time-displaced character stealing a lexicon and hiding it so that the "missing" glyphs can be rediscovered in her present.
- Septimus Heap has Silas Heap and Alther try to save their book collection from the Custodians, which are rounding up Magyk books in order to burn them.
- In The Ring of Solomon, a prequel book to The Bartimaeus Trilogy, Bartimaeus destroys a set of of cunieform tablets owned by his evil master, Khaba, in a fit of rage over the fact that another Khaba's servants is about to seal him in a bottle. He then mentions in a footnote that he normally doesn't approve of burning books, "this being a favored pastime of all the worst rulers in history," but the texts of magicians are a special case because they contain the names of spirits by the thousand and thus to destroy them is to limit the opportunities of all magicians to summon other spirits.
- The Left Behind book series has Bible burning, at least with the furnace inside the giant Nicolae Carpathia statue in New Babylon using onionskin paper found in Bibles. Otherwise, the Antichrist doesn't seem to be doing much to prevent people from reading the Word Of God.
- In the film Left Behind: World At War, Nicolae Carpathia actually wants people to read God's Word...with shipments of Bibles tainted with anthrax!!!
- In Small Gods, the theocratic Omnian Church burns books (and people), much to the horror of the Great God Om when he finds out. Deacon Vorbis also orders the burning of the Great Library of Ephebe. It does get burnt down, but not before Brutha stores all the scrolls in his photographic memory. And the person who set it on fire was an Ephebian.
- Voices, the second book in Annals Of The Western Shore, has the Alds destroy as many books in Ansul as they can. In fact, they invaded specifically to pull down its library and destroy the works therein, although they are strictly speaking "drowning" books (and their owners) in the ocean since they consider fire too holy for the job.
- In Christian Nation, the protagonist's job in the current theocratic American society is to sort through and destroy books that are deemed subversive to the ideals of the ruling society.
- In Manly Wade Wellman's short story Letters of Cold Fire, the hero sets (regular, hot) fire to a book of spells written in "letters of cold fire." Justified in that the villain is using the book to try to kill the hero, among other things.
- In Elizabeth Enright's book, The Saturdays, Miss Pearl the hairdresser tells Mona that her stepmother threw her book in the stove when she was reading instead of doing her chores.
- The Scream: The "Big Blaze for Jesus," wherein the Moral Guardians encourage teens to bring their records to a bonfire.
- "Books Are Burning" by XTC.
- "Bulls on Parade" by Rage Against the Machine averts this - they don't gotta burn the books, they just remove 'em for similar ends.
- The cover of the Utopia album Swing to the Right depicts a group of smiling young people burning records, with one kid holding up a copy of that very album prior to tossing it on the fire. (The cover is actually a doctored photo of a real life Beatles record-burning event held in the wake of Lennon's infamous "We're more popular than Jesus now" remark; the original image can be seen on the Beatles' YMMV page.)
- The opening mini-movie to Styx's Rock Opera 'Kilroy Was Here' featured this, but with records and guitars.
- The page quote above comes from Almansor, a tragic play written in 1823 by German Jewish playwright Heinrich Heine, in reference to the burning of copies of the Islamic holy book, the Qur'an, by the "Catholic monarchs," Ferdinand and Isabella, following the conquest of the Muslim country of Grenada, the final stage of the Reconquista of Spain. And indeed, the words proved prophetic as The Spanish Inquisition (started by those same monarchs around 1480, twelve years before the conquest) was going down at about this time, which would see people being burned at the stake for heresy, and would lead to serious persecution of Jews and Muslims.
- Following the end of the Second World War, the famous quote from Almansor was engraved on a memorial that was erected at the site of the infamous Nazi book-burnings of 1933 at Berlin's Opernplatz (which is now called Bebelplatz). Almansor was among the works by Jewish authors that was consigned to the flames — and as we all know, the Nazis didn't stop with books.
- Assassins Creed II had DLC based on Girolamo Savonarola's Bonfire of the Vanities, in which the "Mad Monk," in an effort to return Florence to a Godlier, pre-Renaissance state, organizes massive burnings of the books and artworks that he felt were corrupting Italy.
- Book burning also went down in the original Assassins Creed. Jubair al-Hakim, Altair's eighth target, blamed written knowledge for pretty much all evils, including the current war between the Saracens and the Crusaders. In his Kick the Dog cutscene, he ends up pushing one of the scholars who protested this into the pile of burning books, telling him that if he loved his books so much, then he could join them.
- Postal 2 has a level in which the player has to fight their way through throngs of anti-book protesters, who burn down the town library with him in it.
- In Dragon Age: Origins, one of Wynne's gifts, The Search for the True Prophet, is mentioned as looking as if it had been rescued from a fire at some point. It is interesting to note that the book in question is actually an alternative view of Andraste which was probably quite heretical and blasphemous.
- In Tropico, you can order these once you have a cathedral built. It wins you favor with the religious crowd and cows the intellectuals into submission to your rule, at the cost of a nasty effect on education.
- In Tears To Tiara 2, burning of all none-essential and religious books is ordered by the Knight Templar of the The Holy Church. To make the people stupid and prepare them for the Millenarius plan.
- In one episode of The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson sees a bookmobile being driven by Reverend Lovejoy, who asks for book suggestions. Lisa had been depressed at how few people were reading, and excitedly lists some books and authors she loves... then the letters behind a tree reveal that it's a Book-Burning-Mobile.
- In the Family Guy episode "Not All Dogs Go to Heaven", Meg takes Brian to the church to burn books on science and evolution, citing them as "harmful to God". Among the burnt books are On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin, A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking, and a fictional book entitled Logic for First Graders.
- This was the theme and the title of a She-Ra: Princess of Power episode.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Fire Nation (appropriately enough) broke into the Great Big Library of Everything to burn down an entire section, since it contained information that could harm them.
- Highlander: The Animated Series had an episode where one of the local Mooks, the green-armored soldiers known as Hunters, decides to quit working for the Big Bad and strike out on his own. He decides the best way to keep the subjects of his new empire in line is to restrict their access to knowledge and develops an obsession with book burning. Ramirez, who had tried and failed to stop the original Library of Alexandria from being destroyed, makes bringing him down a personal crusade. His name, of course, is Hunter 451.
- The Angry Beavers: In "Beaver Fever", Norb and Dag become disco stars. After announcing their latest album is "bigger than sliced bread", angry bread lovers stage public burnings of their albums. After the beavers clarify that they actually said that their latest album is "bigger than a slice of bread", sheepish fans are shown trying to retrieve their albums from the bonfire.