February started off on quite the ominous note, with pastor Greg Locke from Tennessee holding an old-fashioned book burning. While hardly the first, the widespread coverage in the news is a sign that we have stopped denying book burnings happen on US soil. Researching for this post in particular drove home just how little we like to talk about them happening here. Most articles listing modern day book burnings fail to mention the ones that happen in the US, instead focusing on burnings in countries with historically conservative governments, like Iraq, Iran, or Pakistan. The unfortunate reality is they happen here, and we need to pay attention to their rise in our own backyard.
The recent uptick in book burnings, with two incidents occurring in 2017 alone, have come with the increase in nationalism seen in the political sphere in the US. One incident revolved around author J.K. Rowling’s comments criticizing former President Trump. Another involved a Catholic church in North Carolina burning items from their library their new pastor deemed “heretical,” causing the parish to schism in response. In 2018, a pastor in Iowa burned copies of LGBTQIA+ inclusive books live on Facebook.
“Where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.”– Heinrich Heine
Heinrich Heine has been quoted often recently, “where they burn books, they will ultimately burn people also.” The truth behind those words can be seen following the history of the Holocaust, an event that happened over a century after Heine made his haunting prediction. Worrying signs can be seen from the pastors and zealots who are burning books now; Locke has continued to ramp up his unhinged behavior by targeting his own parish. In a leaked video on Twitter, he threatens his to dox six members of his parish he claims are witches. He’s upped the ante a second time by claiming those with autism are possessed by demons, rather than being neurodivergent.
As Richard Ovenden points out in Burning the Books, the way these oppressive regimes maintain control of their populations is through documentation control. The most prolific example of this is systemic book burnings held in Germany in the 1930s for anything considered subversive. The first large burning happening at Berlin’s Institute for Sexual Research in May of 1933, with the immolation of roughly 20,000 books and journals focusing on LGBTQIA+ health and information, as well as works deemed “un-German.”
Locke is hardly alone in his extremist hate preaching, and with the uptick of nationalist activity in the country over the last few years, it is doubtful we’ve seen the last of book burnings in the US. With censorship, it is often to silence voices that threaten those who wish to ban them. In her book, Burning Books and Leveling Libraries, Rebecca Knuth emphasizes that democracy is the biggest threat to the perceived right by a single faction to what they feel they are entitled to. Democracy also, at least in theory, makes it harder for single factions to direct rage at those they consider other; while this could be argued as optimistic, it also should be noted that totalitarian or authoritarian governments run on the destruction of what they perceive as other. We need to pay attention to the voices that are being violently silenced in the bonfires and ensure that this time the burnings stop with books.
Nia Thimakis is a substitute librarian in the Carroll County Public Library system in Maryland. She has been active on state and ALA divisions and round tables since 2016, and has had a strong opinion against banning books since she was young. Lucky enough to attend schools that believed in access to typically banned materials, and growing up in a house that supported uncensored reading, she believes access should not be a matter of luck or circumstance. She has experience in nonprofits, technical writing, instructional design, and has a love for exploring coffee shops with her daughter.