Friday, May 09, 2008

lessons of history

Both bookninja.com and Quillblog have made note of the fact that tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of a rather large and comprehensive burning of books in Nazi Germany.

The story continues over at abebooks.com, where other bookburnings are investigated, and that page also contains some fascinating interviews on the subject of fire-related censorship.

While some folks might consider book-burning the ultimate user right (I bought it, so I can do what I want with it), my compatriots over at the Professional Writers Association of Canada and I are dedicated to the fight against censorship, especially the burny kind.

For more information on censorship and challenges to reading and writing in Canada, please see the Freedom to Read website maintained by the good people at the Book and Periodical Council.

(cross-posted at pwac.ca)

For more on my opinion about why destroying books in this way is wrong, please see this earlier post.

9 comments:

Infringer said...

"While some folks might consider book-burning the ultimate user right (I bought it, so I can do what I want with it), my compatriots over at the Professional Writers Association of Canada and I are dedicated to the fight against censorship, especially the burny kind."

Yup, and a lot strong nationalists support harsh penalties for flag burning too. You know, all in the name of freedom and such.

Speaking of freedom, censorship, and of course, copyright. I've added a couple more examples of copyright being used as a tool for censorship to my website.

Products in Social Commentaries

Doctor Who lost in cyberspace

I hope you find them interesting.

Chris Brand said...

Surely the big difference is that the Nazis didn't actually buy the books they burned.

I suspect that even if the authors would be disappointed if somebody bought thousands of copies of their book to burn, the publishers would be delighted. Both would be getting paid, and could go ahead and print more books (ideally, to have the same people buy them to burn, ad infinitum). Just think of the publicity ! The author would make a fortune.

Of course there are environmental arguments against it, but that's a separate issue.

So yes, I'm a firm believer in my right to burn my own property, including the books I've bought, provided I'm not doing undue harm to the environment in the process. In practice, I certainly wouldn't waste my money in that way.
(now that I think of it, I could probably heat my house for several weeks with the books I own, even though burning paper isn't a very efficient heat source).

John said...

I have taken pains here and elsewhere to make a distinction between burning the book as object and censoring the text by burning the book -- the latter being the announced intention of the Nazi burnings. Well, that and extreme intimidation of any intellectual opposition.

I note with little surprise that neither commenter here has even attempted to address that distinction. In fact, Chris sees the only problem with the Nazi event as a question of property appropriation.

I conclude they have no interest in the distinction, which is (as far as I can tell) tacit approval of the events 75 years ago.

Stay classy, San Diego.

Chris Brand said...

I have taken pains here and elsewhere to make a distinction between burning the book as object and censoring the text by burning the book

Maybe elsewhere, John (in fact I remember you graciously allowing that it's reasonable for me to burn a book to make a fire to keep myself alive), but I don't see it here. I see you making some kind of distinction between user rights and censorship (although it's not very clear to me exactly what that paragraph is saying).

Chris sees the only problem with the Nazi event as a question of property appropriation.

I do ? That's news to me, but thanks for telling me how I feel about this particular event, John.

Ok, I did say Surely the big difference is that the Nazis didn't actually buy the books they burned., when in reality it's also that they were the government. They prevented any more copies from being printed, and punished people who possessed them. That's the real censorship - making the book unavailable to others. The burning itself was more symbolic than anything - they could just as easily have locked all the copies up in a warehouse somewhere. Burning a pile of books by itself doesn't prevent people from reading (other copies of) those same books (it might even raise interest). It's preventing people reading the books that's problematic (and for the record, John, note that I have said that I do consider that to be a problem).

So no, I don't have a problem with somebody (trying to) buy all the copies of some book to burn (or to lock them up in a basement, or throw them into the river), because that's not censorship. Censorship is things like preventing the replacement of those copies by the printer - as long as the book stores or importers can get hold of replacements, where's the censorship ?

I happen to believe that freedom of expression is one of our most fundamental freedoms, and burning a book can certainly be viewed as a form of expression (e.g. the people who periodically burn copies of the Harry Potter books). More so than locking a book up in a warehouse, which has exactly the same effect on the availability of the book in question.

tacit approval of the events 75 years ago - now that's classy. I hope you're proud of that.

John said...

Dude, you can backpedal all you want. I encourage it from the position you were advocating, but don't be pointing your disapproving finger at me while you do it.

I see by the National Post description that you are some sort of tech-savvy software guy (though they failed to mention your public advocacy work... strange, you'd think that might be relevant to the article), yet somehow you failed to see where I linked to my earlier post making the necessary distinction. It's near the bottom.

Would "explicit approval" be the more accurate term? Because you have now said you approve of large book burnings, and you've said so in the context of a discussion about Nazi book burnings.

As long as the German government of the day was not also locking up publishers, those bonfires were just their free expression of opinion. Is that it?

Chris Brand said...

Wow.

No, I don't approve of the Nazi book-burning, for all the reasons that I said in my posting (all that stuff about preventing books being printed and punishing people for possession that you seem to have missed).

I'm extremely anti-censorship. I have contributed to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. As I said, I happen to believe that freedom of expression is one of our most fundamental freedoms

I can distinguish between burning books and censorship. You've already noted that there are reasons to burn a book that have nothing to do with censorship. I go further and say that while book burning may well be associated with censorship (and was, in the Nazi example), they're really two distinct things. Burning a book just destroys that one copy. To censor a book, you really have to get rid of all the other copies, and prevent any new copies from being created. That's what the Nazi's did that was wrong.

A great example is the people burning Harry Potter books. They're doing so to express their disapproval for those books and their treatment of witchcraft. For every copy they burn, JK Rowling gets her royalties which she uses, in part, to fund her lawsuit against the people trying to publish that guide to her books. To my mind, the people doing the burning aren't censoring anything - I can still read all the Harry Potter books I like. JK Rowling, on the other hand, is trying to prevent anyone from getting hold of the guidebook - that's far closer to censorship to me.

What else ?

Yes, I "backpedalled" a bit, if you want to call it that. I thought more about what I'd written and your response to it, and then wrote some of my further thoughts on the matter. You have helped me clarify my thinking about this.

That reporter didn't mention in that article most of the things I told her. It was quite interesting to see which bits she chose to include.

What I said about your words was that you may have made the distinction elsewhere, but that I didn't see it in this posting. I guess you saying that it's in a post you linked to from this posting confirms that, right ?

As for my "disapproving finger", yes, I resent you claiming that I believe things that I don't. And personally, I'd be very careful to be sure that I was portraying somebody's position accurately before I accused them of approving of something done by the Nazis. I would tend to assume that I'd misunderstood what they were saying first. And if somebody explicitly said It's preventing people reading the books that's problematic, in the context of a discussion about Nazi book-burnings, I wouldn't say that they'd indicated "explicit approval" of those actions. So yes, John, I disapprove of those words of yours, just to a lesser degree than I disapprove of the Nazis suppressing books.

Infringer said...

"I conclude they have no interest in the distinction, which is (as far as I can tell) tacit approval of the events 75 years ago."

waoo, hold on there buckaroo. Just because I didn't comment on the part of your post you think I should have, that doesn't mean I approve of censorship.

I quoted the part of your post I wanted to comment on and that was how you so easily equate the burning of books (regardless of context) with censorship.

Don't start putting words in other peoples mouths. That's not nice. I also didn't comment on the argument in the link you provided to your previous post, and I don't agree with it either.

John said...

Chris,

You have an awfully hard test for censorship.

I’m not sure I can consider any mass burning of books by anyone – either evil dictatorship worker or wizard-fearing fundamentalist – as a simple expression of disapproval. When I disagree with a text, I tend not to reach for my matches. Instead, I say publicly, “I disagree.” As I have said before, censorship can be found in the intent. It can also be detected by observing the target of the attack.

Look at the interviews on the abebooks site. One involves a Scottish bookseller who staged a public book burning to get rid of old and unsellable stock (moldy, etc.) My only strong objection to that act is that he might have recycled them more easily. Old paper can make new paper and can be cleaned. I also think he might just have been a weird publicity hound. Fair enough. In related news, I wouldn’t so much mind if he burned books as a performance art piece. I might call it dumb art, but probably not censorship. In both instances his target would not have been the text, and his intent would not have been suppression and intimidation. In neither case would the number of books burned have any bearing on my judgment.

In your happy world, someone would have to burn or otherwise destroy every single copy of a given book, and stop the author from rewriting, while perhaps destroying the printing presses, for an act of censorship to occur. That’s not a definition; it’s permission.

But neither Nazi nor Potter-averse burn with the intention to clear out a crowded stockroom, and they do intend to attack the text. They are also attempting to intimidate readers and writers with a violent action, and at the very least they are advocating for a closing of minds against certain ideas. To say otherwise is to take an intentionally naive position, and does not really qualify as being anti-censorship as far as I can tell. It’s nice that you say you don’t like censorship. I guess.

You can play hurt all you like, but I would be damn sure of what you’re saying the next time you start to qualify the historical record. I didn’t ask you to come here and make a flippant remark about Nazi book burnings. That was your choice.

Infringer said...

In your happy world, someone would have to burn or otherwise destroy every single copy of a given book, and stop the author from rewriting, while perhaps destroying the printing presses, for an act of censorship to occur.

I would mostly agree with this. Simply removing from public access by any means would qualify. The American library Association appears to concur with this also. Their FAQ states, "Censorship is the suppression of ideas and information that certain persons—individuals, groups or government officials—find objectionable or dangerous."

It does go on to state "[censorship] is no more complicated than someone saying, 'Don’t let anyone read this book, or buy that magazine, or view that film, because I object to it! '" and "Censors try to use the power of the state to impose their view of what is truthful and appropriate, or offensive and objectionable, on everyone else." both of which bolster John's idea that censorship need not do anything other than diswade persons from viewing the material.

In the very next paragraph however, it also states "Censorship occurs when expressive materials, like books, magazines, films and videos, or works of art, are removed or kept from public access." which further qualifies the definition.

These two definitions from the same source appear to not quite agree with each other, but I still have to conclude that the last one is closer to the truth, because if attempting to prevent others from reading it were censorship, then that would make every bad book or movie review an act of censorship, and that I think we can all agree would be simply absurd.