Wisdom from the Masters for the Care and Maintenance of the Soul
Don Quixote suffered many reverses during his misadventures as an imaginary knight errant, but none more heartbreaking than the book burning perpetrated by his household.
Miguel de Cervantes (1547–1616) published The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, better known as Don Quixote, January 16, 1605. Cervantes conceived the novel while incarcerated in the Crown Jail of Seville in the summer of 1597. He writes in the prologue, “You may suppose it engendered in some dismal prison.”
Don Quixote became an immediate success, but Cervantes realized only a modest profit off its publication rights. He published Second Part of the Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha in 1615. Although Cervantes authored many other works, including poems and plays, he’s by far best known for Don Quixote, which became the best-selling novel of all time with estimated sales of over 500 million copies.
Unfortunately, his works never afforded him wealth or even comfort, and he died poor, April 23, 1616, on the same day as William Shakespeare.
Don Quixote, unlike other chivalric novels of the period, probes deeply into Quixote’s character and develops the story corresponding to his inner conflict and transformations as he goes up against imaginary foes. As Quixote meets with one failure after another, he finally comes to realize “the error into which I fell, thinking that there were and are knights errant in the world.” Because of Cervantes’s character development, scholars deem Don Quixote the first modern novel.
The book’s main character, Alonso Quixano (later Don Quixote), immerses himself in books about chivalry. He reads them with so much devotion and enthusiasm that he forgets about everything else. When he needs more books, he sells acres of land from his once considerable estate. Alonso spends sleepless nights trying to understand the texts and extract their meaning. This creates a problem.
Gradually Alonso Quixano’s mind slips entirely into the world of chivalry. With his senses wholly impaired, he imagines it reasonable and necessary that he should become a knight errant and travel the world seeking adventures like those he’d read about in his books.
Quixano cleans up some old armor, selects an aged nag and names it Rocinante, and assumes the name Don Quixote. He lacks only a lady-love in whose name he might go forth conquering. He finds an attractive peasant girl in a nearby village and summarily names her Dulcinea of Toboso, a princess and a great lady.
Don Quixote sets out on his first sally one morning before dawn on a hot day in July. He emerges through a corral door riding Rocinante, wearing armor, a poorly constructed helmet, and bearing a shield and lance. Quixote rides “with great joy and delight at seeing how easily he had given a beginning to his virtuous desire.”
Quixote rides alone on this first quest. His future sidekick, Sancho Panza, will accompany him on future adventures.
To say things do not go well on his first outing understates the situation. Don Quixote encounters a throng of merchants and imagines that they are knights errant that he must confront. He charges but falls off Rocinante and injures himself. One of the mule drivers walks up to him, breaks the lance into pieces, and beats him “as if he were threshing wheat.”
Quixote returns home and begs his friends and relatives to take him to his bed, “for I have been sorely wounded.” Laying on his bed, Quixote explains that his bruises resulted from a fall from his horse while “doing battle with ten of the most enormous and daring giants one could find anywhere in the world.” Those in attendance, led by the housekeeper, determine that Quixote’s state requires decisive action on their part to cure their loved one of his delusions.
The Priest, a family friend, secures the keys to the library from Quixote’s niece and attempts to sort the offending books from the innocent ones. The niece implores him to pile them all in the corral and set them on fire. But the Priest insists on examining the titles to avoid the risk of destroying good books with the bad. But he soon tires of the effort and orders the housekeeper to take all the “large books” to the corral.
Nothing could please the housekeeper more for she “would rather burn the books than weave a piece of cloth, no matter how large or fine it might be.” She seizes almost eight at a time and throws them out the window. Cervantes writes that some books “should have been preserved in perpetual archives.” But the eagerness of the book-burners settles their destiny.
That night the housekeeper “burned and consigned to the flames all the books that were in the corral and in the house.”
A book burning seldom accomplishes its purpose and often robs humanity of valuable works never to be read again. Don Quixote, convinced that an enchanter obliterated his library, embarks on further expeditions. The irrationality didn’t lie in the books, but in the mind of the reader. The legendary adventure of the windmills awaits Don Quixote de La Mancha and his newly gained squire, Sancho Panza. And that’s only the beginning.
Book burning implies the ritual destruction of books or other written materials by fire. Historically, the burning of books occurs in public to demonstrate cultural, religious, or political opposition to the materials in question.
John Milton (1608–1674), who suffered the burning of his books in England and France, openly opposed pre-publication censorship in England in the mid-seventeenth century. In his pamphlet, Areopagitica (1644), he gave an impassioned philosophical defense of the right to freedom of speech and expression. He speaks of books as living, breathing creatures, and their censorship and their destruction as comparable to killing a man.
Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are… Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were.
Book burning dates at least as far back as 238 B.C., when the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered a bonfire of books as a way of consolidating power in his new empire. As long as there have been books, social, political, and religious entities have attempted to silence a person or people whose views they oppose by burning their books.
A Biblical example of book burning comes from a compelling account in the Bible that occurred in the 6th century B.C.
The Babylonian army besieged Jerusalem for the third and final time in 587 B.C. The invaders carried a significant portion of the population into Babylonian exile. Earlier, the prophet Jeremiah warned the nation of impending disaster. His spoken and written opposition to political and spiritual conditions brought him in direct conflict with the Judean king, Jehoiakim. When the king heard the words written by Jeremiah, he retaliated with a book burning.
It was the ninth month, and the king was sitting in the winter house, and there was a fire burning in the fire pot before him. As Jehudi read three or four columns, the king would cut them off with a knife and throw them into the fire in the fire pot, until the entire scroll was consumed in the fire that was in the fire pot. (Jeremiah 36:22–23 ESV)
But book burnings ultimately fail in their objective.
Now after the king had burned the scroll with the words that Baruch wrote at Jeremiah’s dictation, the word of the LORD came to Jeremiah: Take another scroll and write on it all the former words that were in the first scroll, which Jehoiakim the king of Judah has burned. (Jeremiah 36:27 ESV).
Further, those who attempt to destroy the opposition by burning their books, eventually destroy themselves.
And concerning Jehoiakim king of Judah you shall say, ‘Thus says the LORD, You have burned this scroll, saying, Why have you written in it that the king of Babylon will certainly come and destroy this land, and will cut off from it man and beast? Therefore thus says the LORD concerning Jehoiakim king of Judah: He shall have none to sit on the throne of David, and his dead body shall be cast out to the heat by day and the frost by night. (Jeremiah 36:29.
We find a shocking example of book burning beginning on May 10, 1933, when Nazi-dominated student groups and the Hitler Youth Movement carried out public burnings of books they claimed were “un-German.” The powerful symbol of Nazi intolerance destroyed by fire upwards of 25,000 books by authors such as Bertolt Brecht, Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ernest Hemingway, Jack London Leon Trotsky, H. G. Wells, and many more.
The German Poet, Heinrich Heine, penned these prophetical words in 1821, more than a century before the fires exterminated both books and humans in Nazi Germany: “Where they burn books, they will in the end also burn people.”
Der Führer who instigated the burnings, in the act of cowardice, poisoned himself while hiding in a bunker on April 30, 1945. According to Hitler’s orders, bunker survivors destroyed his body and that of his beloved Eva Braun by fire.
The books the Nazi regime consigned to the flames live on. The book burners do not.
Paper (depending on its composition) burns at 451 degrees Fahrenheit. So, Ray Bradbury, in his futuristic novel about an anti-intellectual future when book-burning becomes institutionalized, uses the combustible temperature of paper as the title.
The book begins with its main character, fireman Guy Montag at a book burning. Montag, like Don Quixote’s housekeeper, found the burning of books pleasurable.
It was a pleasure to burn… With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history… He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
Books comprise something more than ink and paper, and burning them means something more than destruction by other means. Matt Fishburn, the author of Burning Books, chronicles the phenomenon through the ages. He holds that book burnings represent attempts to control others and announce what a regime, organization, or movement considers acceptable to shape the public sphere. The synchronization of beliefs and norms.
According to Acts 19, when word got around that a man with an “evil spirit” attacked and drove the Apostle Paul and others from a house “naked and wounded,” fear fell on Jews and Greeks in Ephesus. Many of them experienced a genuine conversion. Many, who practiced magic arts, brought books with a total valued of “fifty thousand pieces of silver” and burned them before a great crowd.
Most Bible commentators like Simon Kistemaker agree that by burning the books, the city of Ephesus purged itself of terrible literature, making way for the Gospel. Undoubtedly, however, as with Quixote’s library, many books of value might have perished in the blaze. The Ephesus book burners apparently acted on an emotional impulse rather than any specific prompting by the Apostles.
Books aren’t evil in and of themselves. Depending on their emotional state, agenda, and interpretation of the writings, the readers make of them as they will. Some potential book burners may misjudge the effect books have on the readers.
Recently certain parties who don’t align with author J. K. Rowling’s political views expressed their opposition by burning her books, primarily the Harry Potter series. One fanatic even tweeted that they intended to burn the books and the movie DVDs. Rowling responded humorously with a tweet of her own. “Well, the fumes from the DVDs might be toxic, and I’ve still got your money, so by all means borrow my lighter.”
I have several books on my shelves that contradict my personal opinions and the convictions of many whose views I share. But they have a value worth preserving. If nothing else, they contribute to sharpening the truths I hold dear. Destroying them would do nothing more than rob a culture of words and thoughts that may have some future value.
A song by Jacques Ibert playing during the closing titles of the 1933 film version of Don Quixote includes the following lines:
The books are vanished now,
They’re ashes on the ground.
If all my books have brought me death,
One book will make me live forever.
Spain and the world celebrated the 400th anniversary of Don Quixote of La Mancha’s publication in the year 2005. Quixote’s library perished in flames, but the adventures of the Ingenious Gentleman of La Mancha survive in perpetuity.