After reading Julian Baggini’s piece on burning the Encyclopædia Britannica in Aeon Magazine, I couldn’t resist reposting this story about book-burning that I wrote way back (as one of my series of Yijing-based stories), and that was published on Necessary Fiction back in 2010. The story was called ‘How the Revolution Began’, and featured not a blazing encyclopaedia, but instead whole libraries of burning books, culminating in a set of blazing dictionaries.
First they banned novels, because they said — reasonably enough — that the world was complicated enough and the problems of the world grave enough, without the distraction of imagined worlds and non-existent problems. I was a young man back then. I remember standing outside the City Hall and watching the people bring cart-loads of dreams, fantasies and imaginings to fuel the pyres set up by the authorities. And perhaps I was not alone in feeling a kind of glee at the sight of those cheery orange and yellow flames, at the satisfying crackle of paper going up in smoke.
Afterwards, it was strange how quickly we adjusted. We got used to reading other things on the bus as we travelled to work. We filled the empty spaces on our shelves with ornaments. We got by.
Two years later, they outlawed books of poetry. There were protests, mainly from the poets themselves, but the reasoning of the authorities was sound: light verse, they said, was inconsequential; ballads were stories in disguise, and thus should, for the sake of consistency, go the same way as novels; love lyrics fostered delusion; sonnets were impossibly elitist; limericks inclined the mind to disrespect; and haiku — well, haiku were just downright odd, and foreign with it. Besides, nobody had read any poetry for years, even if — unaccountably — there were many who persisted in writing it.
Non-fiction lasted a little longer. By now I was a student and like many of my peers, I spent hours seated on the bus or in roadside cafés, reading works on philosophy, economics, science, history, medicine. And whilst we sometimes longed for a good couplet or two, for the simple pleasure of a story, there was plenty still to nourish us. Yet, during the year of my graduation, a new decree was issued, and the philosophy books were gathered together, heaped up outside the City Hall, and went the same way as the poetry and the fiction: Laozi and Leibniz, Marx and Mahavira, Al-Ghazali and Albertus Magnus — all of them destroyed in the fires until only their names remained.
Next, after a break of only a few months, came history; and then, over a period amounting to more than ten years, the various divisions of the natural sciences. Economics and medicine were the last to go, so that, by the time I reached middle age and my waist began to spread, the only book remaining on my shelf was the dictionary. Good, solid, authoritative, uncontroversial: a book of words, but not of thoughts. And even that languished: with only the dictionary on our shelves, we had all long lost our taste for reading.
Nevertheless, we continued to go on living. On the bus, freed from our books and newspapers, instead we gazed from the windows, or hummed softly to ourselves. Our conversations were few. We nodded to each other in greeting as we passed, but did not speak. When we visited each other’s houses, we arrived in silence, drank together without exchanging a single utterance, and departed with wordless smiles.
Then one winter, the decree came. We were to come to the City Hall and hand in our dictionaries. There was snow on the ground that morning. Some of us had pocket dictionaries, some desk editions, others dictionaries in multiple volumes, one for each of the letters of the alphabet. And after all that had happened, I was surprised by the heaviness in my heart as I too joined the queue of people who registered their books — mine was old-fashioned and heavy, in two volumes, with a blue binding bearing the name of an almost forgotten university — and then passed them to the officials where they were loaded onto carts.
We returned to our homes, not meeting each other’s eyes. And we saw the familiar orange glow over the roof-tops of the pyres by the City Hall. The bookshelves in my house were, at last, empty. There was nothing more to burn. I sat down in a chair, poured myself a glass of wine, and — unaccountably — found myself weeping.
Some time in the afternoon, when the light was failing and the orange glow was becoming ever stronger against the darkening sky, something unexpected happened. A strong breeze blew up from the east, sweeping down the valley towards our town. It circled around the pyres and took up the pieces of ash. Charred fragments of paper rose into the air, a strange and shimmering cloud spiralling upwards, and they caught on the breeze and fluttered beyond the square where they began to rain down on our houses and our gardens.
And the people of our town emerged into the streets to find words, strange words, lying there in the snow, in no particular order, lacking any logic: Gorgonzola; Trigonal; Indium; Fossiliferous; Rodeo; Stentorian; Nombril. Some words formed themselves into lines that, in a time already forgotten, somebody had laboured whole weeks on end to write, others seemed to suggest newness by the power of chance conjunctions, giving rise to new thoughts. And as I hurried into the street to witness this spectacle, I heard something to which I had long become unaccustomed — the sound of voices, of conversations, of shouts, the tentative beginnings of songs. I saw others like myself, standing before their houses, gazing down at the charred words in the snow with wonder, pointing, gesticulating, speaking, calling out nonsense syllables, testing out new combinations of words and sounds, smiling and laughing with delight.
This, then, was how the revolution began.