Every time I come across a photo on Instagram with books on fire, a part of my soul dies. To be clear, it’s not the same as when I cringe at dogeared pages, cry at tea spilled on a book or broken spines. It goes beyond that. Burning books isn’t simply about what one does with their personal belongings — it’s about the symbolism behind it, the historical and cultural implications, and so much more.
If you’re on bookstagram, you’ve likely heard of or even read The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak and Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. The former is a novel based on World War II, the Holocaust and book burnings. The latter is a cautionary tale, partially about book burnings as well.
Reading these should already give insight into why burning books, regardless of motivation, isn’t such a great idea. In any case, let me outline why you should reconsider burning books for bookstagram photos.
Book Burnings throughout History
Nazi Book Burnings
As the Nazis ascended to power in Germany in the 1930s, books that were deemed against the “German spirit”, including Jewish literature, were banned. Most notably, on May 10, 1933, over 20,000 books were burnt at the Opernplatz in Berlin. Dozens upon dozens of book burnings led by the Nazis were held across Germany on the same day. Many more books were burnt in other towns and cities in June 1933. Book burnings were acts of persecution. First they eradicated books, then they set up concentration camps where they murdered countless people.
Dort wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man auch am Ende Menschen.
[There where they burn books, in the end, they burn humans too.]
Terrorist Book Burnings
More recently, in 2015, extremists burnt thousands of books and manuscripts in Mosul. This wasn’t an isolated incident. They’ve targeted other libraries as well. It’s not a coincidence that libraries suffer at the hands of wars, dictatorships and terrorism. They contain ideas and preserve culture.
The Significance of Burning Books
Book burnings are often symbols for censorship and oppression. That’s why they cannot be taken lightly. How is that significant for a bookstagrammer? Posting a photo of burning books on Instagram essentially makes this act public. It’s an invitation for followers and beyond to view books being burnt, even if it’s not live.
To burn books for the sake of aesthetics without intending to make a statement, still makes a statement — that one ignores or is ignorant of what burning books means to many people. It collectively disregards cultures and communities that were attacked and are being attacked today through book burnings.
Safety and the Law
Aside from the cultural, political and historical implications, burning books is dangerous and potentially illegal. In March this year, a wildfire broke out in Florida because a man burnt books. 200 people had to be evacuated; at least two homes were burnt down. When you’re behind the camera, focussed on taking photos, you might not be able to react quickly enough to put out a fire if sparks fly.
As in Florida, open fires are prohibited in Singapore. Laws differ, of course, depending on where you live but this is also something to consider.
Burn Candles Instead
When it comes to hashtags like #burningpages, #booksonfire, #flamingpages and #bookishfire, I strongly advocate that you should not burn books. Light candles instead. Sit by a fireplace. There’s no good reason to set books on fire just for likes.