Readers Respond: On Book Burning

Shaun Bythell, the Scottish bookseller mentioned in this post about book burning, wrote to me to explain why he’d chosen this method for disposing of unsold volumes:

There was a good reason for burning the books, and it wasn’t based on censorship or oppression. At the moment we currently send the stock we cannot sell to charity shops but some of it is in such bad condition they won’t take it – this we put in a skip and it ends up in a landfill site.

Of course book burning is not a more environmentally friendly solution than landfill but this is where most second-hand books with no value currently end up. My argument for having this event was based on the fact that if the alternative fate of the books was to rot in a hole in the ground why not do something more interesting and use them to make a fire sculpture as a publicity stunt to get people talking about the problem, and to raise the profile of Wigtown as Scotland’s National Book Town. Richard Booth who set up Hay on Wye as Booktown about 30 years ago once told me that he got far more press coverage from declaring war on the Welsh Tourist Board than from setting up a successful Book Town, and to some degree I agree that the media engages far more enthusiastically with a controversial story which polarises opinion than one of small rural town which is enjoying economic regeneration. So, yes it was a publicity stunt rather than a practical measure and it has worked – a full page in the Financial Times, half a page in the Sunday Times, a quarter page in the Sunday Herald and a five minute interview on Radio Scotland all of which mention Wigtown and discuss the issue of “dead” books.

Of course there are alternatives to burning books but one of the aims of this excercise is to lobby our politicians into setting up a recycling unit here in the town, and several dealers have been doing this for some time without success so I thought it was time for drastic action. People have suggested that we could have given the books away, to which I ask you to whom? Who would want a Desmond Bagley paperback with no front cover and the last 30 pages missing? The reason that we didn’t give these books away is that nobody would take them – we’ve tried putting a box of books on a bench in front of the shop with a free books sign and at the end of the day they are all still there.

My storage space is valuable and I would rather have it filled with books which I can sell than rubbish which people won’t even take away for free. We regularly take boxes of the better material which we reject to the local charity shops, but even this costs money and takes time, added to which these shops are to some degree in competition with us but they have the advantage of being staffed by volunteers, rate concessions and all the other advantages associated with charitable status as well as being given their stock for free.

Book dealers generally don’t like destroying books but we have to be pragmatic about business pressures and if nobody wants to even take these books away for free we don’t really have much choice in the matter. I don’t feel sentimental about chucking them out anymore – when you are trying to make a living in a small town in the isolated South West of Scotland there’s not a lot of room for sentiment about dead stock.

Some people loved the idea of the Book Burning, presumably not all for the same reason, but one person gave me a fairly good reason which was that they thought our event turned something normally associated with oppression and intimidation into a party and a celebration with a positive goal and in some way put a distance between the historical associations of book burning and today’s world.

Anyone who is incapable of drawing the distinction between a despotic regime, or a censorious group (or individal) buring books to suppress the contents or oppress a minority or ideology, and a bunch of people who have taken a waste product (albeit books) to create a work of art, have a party, and promote an environmental solution to a problem is probably the sort of person who falls into the former category. A number of people have a knee-jerk reaction which is to say “the Nazi’s burned books” and argue that this makes book burning a taboo – they did so for completely different reasons and there are absolutely no similarities between what we have done and they did. You might just as well say “the Nazi’s made the trains run on time” and argue from that standpoint that we should have a protest every time a train arrives on time.

The books we burned were generally books in very poor condition, but there were others in good condition which would never have had any chance of selling again such a odd volumes of modernish encyclopaedias, repealed statutes and other irrelevant legal texts, Readers’ Digests etc. There was nothing of any financial or historical value – if there had been I would have sold it rather than burn it.
I hope you understand now why I did this.

If you’d like to respond to the post, email me at llalami AT yahoo DOT com