Thursday, September 9, 2010

"They who begin by burning books will end by burning man."

So sayeth a 19th century German philosopher whose name I can't recall.
All week there's been chatter about the legalities, the rights, and wrongs of the asshat in Florida who declared 9-11 "International Burn a Koran Day". Everything has been said about this, including that said asshat will instead be having a powwow with the "Iman" (guess he's going to David Bowie's house) in charge of Park 51, the not-mosque that's not at Ground Zero. Also included in the discussions has been "hey, it's just a book", which leads me to the only thing that hasn't been said in this whole debate:
It's not just a book. It's a book. Books are important.

Leaving aside the content of this particular book (to which I am ignorant, since I don't own and have never read a Koran; something I intend to rectify this coming Buy a Koran Day), this idea in people's heads that something can be "just" a book is laughable. The only reason we've progressed as far as we have as a society is because of books. Our personal histories, our cultural histories, our philosophies, the entire concept of objective analytical thinking is not possible without books.
Books are important. You read them. You share them. You pass them on to be read by others. You discuss the content (unless it's Dan Brown, then you have to make a movie starring Tom Hanks first). You get up early on Saturday and go to temple to sit in a room with other people who have different ideas on that week's Torah portion, and you disagree with each other, broadening horizons and making new friends.
Now, in Judaism, books are revered. Most of all, the Torah, whose study is the most pious and holy of pursuits (aside from saving lives). The Torah is NOT just a book, and I don't know any religious person who would say that it is. No Jew, no Christian, no Muslim, no Hindu (well, some branches of Hinduism...). For Christians and Muslims, as well as we Jews, the Torah is the basis for their faiths. Hindus understand the importance of books because they've been around about 5,000 years longer than any other culture (that's a conservative estimate). Meanwhile, the Buddhists would say "if it gives you comfort, then it is of significance". (Or was that Tia Dalma in Pirates of the Caribbean?...)
I would imagine, then, that the Koran is emphatically not "just a book". So quit saying that it is. It's a cultural history. It's a piece of art. It's something that gives comfort to a billion people.
If history is important because it allows us to learn from our mistakes, then books are important because they contain history. If ideas are important because they allow us to progress, then books are important because they contain ideas. Books are not a luxury. Books are not symbolism. Books are not simple trifles whose existence is to be taken lightly.
Perhaps, I am in a unique position, as a member of a group often called "the people of the book", I can say that I believe that a book is no less precious than a life. Some books are simple and shallow. Some books are of immeasurable significance. Some books are good, some books are terrible; but in the end every book is the child of someone's mind. As we say in the art world, the medium is the message; and "they who begin by burning books will end by burning man." (It was Heinrich Heine.)

1 comment:

Max Kuenkel said...

I did some searching, and the original quote by German poet and writer Heinrich Heine was this: "Dort, wo man B├╝cher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.", which I would translate in the following way for maximum accuracy of translation (not the best English): "Wherever books are burned, that is where, in the end, people, too, will be burned".

I agree that books are important. Anybody who says "hey, it's just a book" has automatically placed himself in the irrelevance box.