Inflammatory words: on the history of censored books

On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word is an informative book on a hot topic.

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When Sylvia Plath committed suicide in 1963, no arrangements had been made for the deposition of her literary remains: she died intestate. Soon afterwards, Ted Hughes appointed his sister, Olywn, as Plath’s literary agent and executor. She had never got on with Plath (“I think she was pretty straight poison”); now, she was the custodian of her work.

A writer’s estate is never easy to run, writes the former Conservative cabinet minister Kenneth Baker in this sumptuously illustrated survey of book burning and book censorship through the ages. In succinct pages, he relates how, one lunchtime at the Groucho Club in 1998, Ted Hughes gave him a copy of a new poem called “Hear It Again” (reproduced here, but otherwise unpublished). It is a fierce indictment of the “brain damage” inflicted on society by political bibliocide, yet the poet makes no mention in it of his own habit of censorship.

Hughes and his sister burned or conveniently “mislaid” a good deal of Plath’s writing: about 130 pages of what was to be his wife’s last novel, Double Exposure, “disappeared somewhere around 1970”, as he confessed. Anne Stevenson, Plath’s authorised biographer, claimed that Plath had fleshed out no more than two or three chapters while she was “not right in the head”. (Her information came from Hughes.) He is also known to have burned a journal of Plath’s that covered the autumn of 1962, when she wrote the radiantly dark poems that became Ariel and Winter Trees.

“Do the dead have rights?” Baker asks, apropos of these and other clamorous burnings. Would Plath have destroyed Double Exposure? Baker offers bite-sized biogra­phies of Salman Rushdie, Lord Byron, Franz Kafka, William Tyndale and others associated with book burning and pleas for tolerance. In 1938, grimly, a reprint in Hindi of A Short History of the World by H G Wells provoked the first recorded Muslim book burning in Britain. (Wells had ­described the Prophet Muhammad as a “man . . . of considerable vanity, greed, cunning and self-deception”.) By symbolically burning the book, the Muslim community in east London hoped that the offence done to Islam might be assuaged. In Renaissance-era Florence, the firebrand Dominican friar Girolamo Savonarola had similarly sought to purge the Tuscan city of its perceived corruption by gathering up piles of “godless” books and setting them ablaze in a ­giant “bonfire of the vanities”.

In spite of his spiritual ferocity, the “ascetic, hook-nosed” Savonarola was in some ways a curiously modern personality, Baker suggests. At heart a republican, he sought to rid the ruling Medicis of their monarchical pretensions and curb the excesses of their mercantile enterprises (banking was, to a large extent, an Italian invention – the English term derives from the Italian word “banco”, meaning “counter”). When he sought to challenge the authority of papal Rome, Savonarola was excommunicated, and was burned as a heretic in 1498.

Book burning and death by fire were practised by the Inquisition: an atrocious display of human intolerance and state violence that Baker compares, plausibly enough, to the Nazis and Stalin’s secret police. In their attempts to stifle the spirit of independent thinking and intellectual dissent, the Nazis burned books by the thousand. It was not long before they started to burn people, too, thus fulfilling the prophecy of the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine in 1821: “Where they have burned books, they will end in burning human beings.”

In essence, Baker’s is a superior sort of coffee-table book – one that is not always well edited. A paragraph on page 54 is repeated almost verbatim on page 63; Graham Greene’s wife, Vivien Dayrell-Browning, is once referred to as “Viven”. There are also childish-sounding formulations, such as: “Richard Burton was a most talented Victorian whose exotic life was totally un-Victorian.” Totally?

These blemishes in the written English would be less striking if Baker were not described on the dust jacket as a “political sage”. He enjoyed high office under Margaret Thatcher but, like many in his generation of politician-writers, somehow dodged the remedial English course. (To describe the wartime Italian journalist and novelist Curzio Malaparte as a “dedicated follower of fascism” is a joke at the Kinks’ expense.)

Baron Baker of Dorking has nevertheless written an informative guide. Muslim protesters in Thatcher-era Bradford, we learn, were not always able to incinerate copies of The Satanic Verses, because (as the novelist Ray Bradbury had told us) the temperature at which books burn is Fahrenheit 451. The human body burns at Fahrenheit 1,500. May the Lord have mercy on us.

On the Burning of Books: How Flames Fail to Destroy the Written Word by Kenneth Baker is published by Unicorn (266pp, £25)

This article appears in the 14 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM