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What changes does the digital age spell for book burning?

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Rory Morgan, Online Books Editor, considers the age-old practise of burning books for oppressive purposes and asks how this has changed following the introduction of digital books…

Photo Credit: P. Correia
Photo Credit: P. Correia

With the current release of the film adaptation of The Book Thief memories will be reignited of the oppressive regimes that throughout history have burnt literature as means to control and suppress their people. One of the most harrowing images of Nazi Germany is the large and numerous bonfires of literature that occurred in an attempt to erase Jewish influence on Germany culture and any other subtle ideologies that posed a threat to the Nazi regime. Although this is arguably the most recognisable instance of the activity, it certainly was not the genesis of it…

In fact, there is evidence that book burning has been used as a tool of oppressing the opposition since before 200BC. The Qin Shi Huang dynasty in China consistently used the practice as a means to prevent individuals from using history books to criticise the then current state of affairs. This early instance seems to epitomize the value of the practise. After all, if there is no tangible evidence of fact that something was or occurred, who is to stop a ruling system from dangerously disregarding it as fiction? Without literature any society runs the risk of falling into a 1984 dystopian type nightmare and oppressive regimes are able to falsely legitimise their rule. The use of this tactic for over two thousand years of civilised society demonstrates this, but now that more and more literature has found a home in the cyber world what does this mean for the practise?

On a surface level one could argue that the cyber world protects literature from such sacrilege, but I believe it poses the greatest threat to it yet. Now instead of just simply burning a book’s hard copy, technology allows the ability to edit it. Two plus two can be edited to always result in four and nothing seems to have the permanent and un-editable mark of ink. It is true that now throwing a Kindle on to a fire will not engulf the digital copy, but it is even more apparent that no digital copy is impenetrable or devoid of being tampered with. It seems far more difficult to rescue a book from the potential evils of cyber space than it is from a flaming bonfire.

One calming thought however is the broadness of cyber space and volume of debate it offers. Although information can be more easily infringed on, it is far easily to dispute such activities than it would have been to criticise the bonfires that encompassed Nazi Germany.

It seems the digital age of literature has provided us with both its greatest threat and protectorate. Though we can more easily call out and protest against such acts, the acts themselves are far less visible to the naked eye as instead of roaring flames all we have to go on is the harsh light of a dubious computer screen.

Rory Morgan, Online Books Editor

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