Monday, 10 January 2011

On the burning of books

So, they are burning books in China - again.This time it's counterfeit ones, but the story stirred something in my memory: I managed to mention the Burning of the Books in my first book, giving it a spurious air of scholarship and erudition - spurious because, in those pre-Wikipedia days, it would have been too time-consuming to find out more.

Back in the days of the Qin Dynasty, between 213 and 206 BC, books were burnt because the ideas in them had (it was believed) to be suppressed. Now they are burnt to take the copies out of circulation so that real copies might thrive, and pour encourager les autres. Alarmingly, the second part of the Qin Dynasty policy's name is the Burying of the Scholars: I haven't heard of the Burying of the Counterfeiters yet, but who knows what might be on the agenda at the US Department of Commerce - at whose behest, I have little doubt, China is doing at least some of this book-burning (and its modern equivalent, CD burning, though that phrase already has a somewhat different meaning).

A friend who writes English as a Foreign Language books once told me that if he had only a fraction of a penny for each illicit copy of his books that is circulating in China, he would be a very rich man. But I have a suspicion that the beneficiaries of this official biblioclasm (or libricide) are likely to be multinational publishers rather than hard-up authors (not that the friend I mentioned ever seemed hard-up). There's something deeply disturbing about the idea of burning books, whatever the motives - it isn't likely to lead to greater respect for books in general.

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