Rediscovered Stories: Howling Fire Ascending

By Camellia Mukherjee 

I was in middle school and my friends and I, who hated Physics with passion, decided to burn our Physics: Principles and Problems book after class. It was a sunny afternoon.  My apartment was the closest one with an open terrace, so we chose to hold the ceremony there. We crossed the street, our blue, poufy skirts bouncing with every merry stride. Once we reached the terrace, we sat around in a circle on the asphalt.

“They used to do this, you know,” Mia said. 

“They, who?” others asked. 

“The Nazis, and others. Now we’re them,” Mia crudely laughed. 

My mother abruptly interrupted our ceremony. She had learned from the security guard of our apartment that seven girls were up to no good. Seeing my mother approach, my friends quickly fled. I tried to explain the event to Ma. She wasn’t convinced, and it didn’t end well.

I was the nerdish one among the group, and that night I did a Google search to find out about book burning.

Book burning dates back to as early as seventh-century BCE when King Jehoiakim of Judah burned part of a scroll that was written during prophet Jeremiah’s dictation. The main purpose of book-burning rituals was to suppress any unconventional view that was perceived as posing a threat to the prevailing order. In Nazi Germany, book burnings were organized regularly to destroy “degenerate” works by Jewish writers such as Karl Marx.1 

The most-recent book burning took place this year in March, in Mosul, when ISIS militants bombed the Mosul Public Library. As a result, more than 8,000 rare old books and manuscripts were burned. As stated by journalist Riyadh Mohammed, “Iraq, the cradle of civilization, the birthplace of agriculture and writing and the home of the Sumerian, Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Arab civilizations had never witnessed such an assault on its rich cultural heritage since the Mongol era in the Middle Ages.”2 

Another recent incident took place in 2009, in a small town in Wisconsin, where the library board members of West Bend Community Memorial Library decided to call for a public book burning to fight books that depicted sex and homosexuality.3 There have been multiple attempts of suppressing ideas and knowledge over time, though no one was able to destroy the idea in each book. The book itself might’ve turned to ashes, but the ideas didn’t perish. One can burn pages, but out of these actions arise even stronger views, recognized and upheld by many more. The knowledge and wisdom within the burned pages rises like a phoenix from the ashes. As stated in The New York Times, “The power that orders the burning of books admits that it governs not by reason and logic but by violence and mood.”1 

This particular image of Saint Dominic de Guzman and the Albigensians, painted by Pedro Berruguete in the fifteenth century, depicts the story of contention between St. Dominic and Albigensians (Cathars). Both of their books were thrown on a fire, yet St. Dominic’s books were miraculously resistant to the flames. This test was said to have symbolized the wrongness the Cathars taught.4 The painting hangs in the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. 



1. Book Burning, 213 BC–2011 AD. University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, n.d. Web. 10 March 2015.

2. Mohammed, Riyadh. “ISIS Burns 8000 Rare Books and Manuscripts in Mosul.” The Fiscal Times. Yahoo Finance., 23 Feb. 2015. Web. 10 March 2015.

3. Hanna. Jason. “Library Fight Riles up City, Leads to Book-Burning Demand.” CNN. CNN Money., 22 July 2009. Web. 10 March 2015.

4. Berruguete, Pedro. St. Dominic de Guzman and the Albigensians. 1400. Museo del Prado, Madrid. Wikimedia Commons. Web. 10 March 2015.