Friday, October 11, 2013

Book-burning: Start of a slippery slope

As someone who has loved books all my life, the very idea of burning books fills me with revulsion and the act itself strikes fear in my heart.
Hold your horses, I hear you say, aren't you over-reacting just a tad? After all, the group of parents and children who organised and took part in a little bonfire of PSLE assessment books and papers recently was just indulging in a little stress-relieving exercise.
To me, it does not matter if it was assessment books that were set alight. The very act of burning a book, any book, is anathema to me. It is an act of vandalism.
Arguing that it is simply an assessment book, to me, is just the beginning of a slippery slope.
Once one dismisses one book as disposable and objectionable, what's there to stop one from deciding another book contains objectionable ideas and therefore needs to be burnt?
And if books contain objectionable ideas, what about the people who believe in the objectionable ideas?
Qin Shi Huang burnt books. And he buried scholars alive.
The Spanish burnt Mayan codices. And they tortured and killed Mayan people in the name of civilising them.
The Nazis burnt books and works of art. And they were guilty of genocide.
You might think I am making a great leap in logic here - burning a few assessment books is very far from committing genocide.
But book-burning has a long, infamous, unbroken association with death and destruction. It often presages narrow-mindedness, intolerance and inhumanity in a community.
It is not simply the act of burning a book itself, but the symbolic power of the gesture.
In great cultures throughout human history, there has been a high value attached to the book as an object, as a symbol of learning, a marker of culture, a badge of civility. With good reason, since they carry the wisdom of the ages, the knowledge painstakingly acquired and recorded through the generations.
Books were once treasured because of their rarity - literacy was the province of the privileged few, and creating books was a laborious process, hence the saying knowledge is power because it was once, literally, so, as access to them was controlled carefully by the powers that be.
Thus attacking the book was, and still is, a potent move, which explains why bullies in power, tyrants and dictators, have always zeroed in on books as a target.
Organising a book-burning is an action pregnant with meaning and redolent of threat throughout the ages.
It is the formality of the ceremony - bringing together people to witness a communal attack on an object which represents the very best of human endeavour and intellect - that fills me with horror and dread at its implications.
The act signals a blithe disregard for, and active antipathy towards, what every man should strive for - learning, knowledge, culture.
The recent case in Singapore was deplorable as it was the parents who allowed, even encouraged, their children to take part in an act whose resonances they clearly do not understand.
Children may be excused because they do not know better. But did the adults who masterminded this act of vandalism think about the message they are conveying to their children? Have they considered that by burning books, they undermine the inherent value of the pursuit of knowledge?
Blaming it all on the stress created by a pressure-cooker education system is no excuse.
The system is there; you can buy into it or not. The choice is up to you as a parent to teach the values you want to inculcate in your children.
Just as the choice was there to find a way to relieve stress that did not attack a symbol of intellect and imagination.
That decision - to burn books - ironically shows why we so direly, urgently, need more books in our culture.