The Catholic Thing
Warmth in Winter Print E-mail
By David Warren   
Saturday, 12 January 2013

Fires are welcome in our northern winter, up here in the Canadas, and dry softwood logs are the fuel of first resort. Books, by comparison, need a lot of page-turning attention to keep them alight, at least when roasted individually. This is why I recommend the books-plus-logs approach to an open fire. I might mention chestnuts, but this is to consider the matter in too superficial a way.

A lady I know in Ottawa – last train stop before Europe – sent round a holiday-season email that filled me with good cheer. It consisted of pictures from her familys customary New Years Eve book burning.

She is an excellent photographer, able to capture with digital technology that warm Kodachrome glow I associate with Christmas cards past. Through the flames I could make out three distinct titles: Why Christianity Must Change or Die, by John Shelby Spong; Religion and Alienation, by Gregory Baum; and A History of God, by Karen Armstrong.

Gentle reader may suspect me of boasting when I mention that I've been a book-burner myself (perhaps before this young mother was born). I once specially adapted an old wood stove, adjusting the grille for fine ash, and dampers on stove, flue, and flue pipes till I had optimized for this purpose.

In those days, before recycling provided a guilt-edged alternative for old phone books, catalogues, newspapers and magazines, one could get nearly through the winter on paper alone.

But that was utilitarian. One longs for the joy in warmth to be redoubled by the pleasure of eliminating pernicious literature. Putting it in the recycling bin gives nothing of that pleasure. Some poor tramp might pick a book out, just because it is free. I know people who aren't even tramps who do this.

And then, not only are they exposed to wicked heresy and error. They may pass the book along to the Sally Anne, or leave it in a laundry room, to do untold further damage.

Stacking such books away in a storage locker is a cop out, an evasion of responsibility. What if you should die, and they all fall into the hands of some susceptible heir? No, it is morally indefensible to discard evil books in a slovenly way.

Better, however, to eliminate gradually and discreetly. A one-time, very public, giant book burning, in for instance the contemporary Islamist manner, is the height of foolishness. We are only drawing attention to the title, and spreading curiosity about it. People may want to know more about the book selected for destruction. They may even be persuaded by our efforts to imagine that the book is entertaining in some way.

The publishers of lascivious works often actually seek this sort of publicity, to encourage the weak of mind and formation. They will quickly reprint, and harvest a profit from the affair. If the publisher isnt pirating, the author of the filthy thing may also be enriched.

We score enough own-goals, over here in Christendom, not to be copying every fanatical excess from the Dar al-Islam. On the other hand, in the medieval spirit, we should pay attention to all their techniques of protest. Who knows what better methods they may have come up with, for making a point? Study them carefully to see what gets results.

Before even considering their content, I would mention that most books published today are significantly more flammable than those of previous generations. Paperbacks on pulp go up a treat. The average American hardcover today, with its felty case, near blotting-paper stock, and glue binding, is very well adapted to the firebox. Few books are properly stitched, and that glue is usually quite crassly over-applied. It thus provides an extra petrochemical jet for the kindling.

I have burnt quite a few books in my time, only because they were so badly made as to become a focus of irritation; then bought the same book over again in a better edition.

My supply of such burners is long exhausted, however, for through the last decade or two I have absolutely refused to buy any book not properly stitch-bound, and printed on decently acid-free paper. Any other I read must come from a library. And Id think it bad form to burn a book that didnt actually belong to me. Besides, the library might make me pay for it.

Content must of course take precedence over style in selecting for ones winter book pile. Still, the fact that more than nine books in ten unconscionably written, are also unconscionably manufactured, is a serendipity. There is hardly a work of popular fiction that wouldnt serve better heating your home, and I cannot scan a bestseller list without spotting fresh candidates for incineration.

But again, buying a book new for the purpose of burning it is perverse. And anyway, the real pleasure comes only after the pain of reading some part of an unworthy volume.

Even today, in reckless moments, I may acquire a book on a subject of lively current interest which, on its surface, promises to edify; alternatively some new poet or thinker I had heard spoken well of. As a man of liberal impulse, should I begin to gag, I set the book aside for later re-perusal. I should never wish to condemn a book for having caught me on the wrong day. Or one that, of no use to me, might be of value to another: that's what secondhand booksellers are for.

If the book under suspicion has not improved on my return to it, however  and I find it still playing to the gallery of the Seven Deadly Sins – I cannot but come to the moment of “aha.” For it would be downright wanton to let a wicked book pass. It would be making oneself an accomplice in its transmission.

Which takes us to e-books. I am entirely defeated by e-books, and invite suggestions from my readers.

David Warren
is a former editor of the Idler magazine and, until recently, a columnist with the Ottawa Citizen. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at:
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (12)Add Comment
written by ib, January 12, 2013
In older times, there would have been occasions for palimpsest making rather than just burning.

Remember St. Dominic burned the Cathars' books, so you have a holy exemplar as guide.

Alas, ebooks can only be deleted.
written by Michael Paterson-Seymour, January 12, 2013
Dort, wo man Bücher verbrennt, verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen.

("Where they burn books, they will, in the end, burn human beings too." — Almansor, Heinrich Heine, 1821)
written by Manfred, January 12, 2013
A treat piece, Mr. Warren! There was a time, of course, when the Church would burn the authors as a civic service. Every cretin today receives a reading or a hearing.
On a positive note, I just purchased a book which I don't believe will ever be burned. It is: The Second Vatican Council (an unwritten story) by Roberto de Mattei. The Table of Contents alone is six pages. Now that we have the perspective of fifty years to look back at Vat. II, this author and some seventy other scholars have a list of very serious questions which they would like the Vatican to answer in order to clearly define what the Church teaches. This exercise will benefit the Church into the future.
written by Charles E Flynn, January 12, 2013
Excellent choices for conversion into BTUs.
written by Ib, January 12, 2013
Harry Heine? Ich mag Hölderlin besser ...

Was ist die Weisheit eines Buchs gegen die Weisheit eines Engels?
("What is the wisdom of a book compared with the wisdom of an angel?" Hyperion, Kap23)

Of course, neither of these poets were really Christians, but Hölderlin at least was honest about it.
written by Ib, January 12, 2013

De Mattei's book won many awards in Italy when it was published in 2010, but got a scathing review in l'Osservatore Romano from Archbishop Agostino Marchetto (formerly head of the Pontificio consiglio della pastorale per i migranti e gli itineranti, and prior to that at the Vatican Secretary of State and Apostolic Nuncio in many countries). It's online at a couple of sites if you would like to read it (hope you can read Italian since I don't think it's online in English).

Of course, if you're a committed sede vacantist, why bother with Vatican II? Or reading this site for that matter ...

Anyway let us know if the book measures up to its press ... Good and bad!
written by Manfred, January 12, 2013
@ib: Sede Vacantist? Why do you suggest that I am a sedevacantist? "Or reading this site for that matter?" Have the editors appointed you the policeman for TCT? When you consider the state of the Church today do you consider this normal? It is quite obvious to me that the Church is a damned mess. Why do you begrudge me the investment of my time to attempt to discover the causes of this horror? An Abp. gave this book a "scathing review"? Do you mean an Abp. like Weakland, Mahoney, Bernardin, Gerety, Fr. Marcial? The hierarchy made itself irrelevant years ago. What is Abp. Marchetto's position on Medjugorje? Buona notte, signore!
written by Mack Hall, January 13, 2013
Mr. Warren:

Well and bravely said. Thank you.
written by ib, January 13, 2013

My comments were made in spirit of bonhomme, as a good natured rib. They were written in the same jocular manner that David's column was. Perhaps that did not come through as you read them. Alas ...
written by Graham Combs, January 13, 2013
We don't need to burn books -- the school house has made reading itself obsolete. One doesn't have to be a former Episcopalian to know that Bishop Spong preaches to an empty room and Karen Armstrong's feminist theology is as welcome as a course syllabus with too many reading assignments. The episcopal apostate and the feminist irrelevancy absolutely depend on the death of curiousity for what readers they do have. Which brings us back to unionized classrooms. Bad books are just as unread as good ones. Is there a more illiterate class in the English-speaking world than the ubiquitous "trend leaders?" Those first-responders to silly and bad ideas...
written by Randall, January 14, 2013
I once put a John Cornwell book in the recycle bin. And I had a fireplace. Drat, what was I thinking?
written by Layman Tom, January 14, 2013
HA! God bless the droll at heart!

My favorite part of enjoying something really witty is seeing how many people bite on the head fake. It would be fun to release this into the wild, untamed media and see the lamenting and gnashing of teeth that would ensue. Why, our dear Mr. Warren would be pilloried as the second coming of Il Duce (with whom, BTW, if they actually knew their history, they have great kinship of ideology) for even mentioning book burning in a savory light. The idea that he actually DID it...hoo hoooo! Now THAT would be a fun party to see. I'll bet Mr. Warren would be amused too.

There's a second-hand book store right near my house. Think I'll head over there this week and support the local economy. When I close my eyes, I can see a nice cigar, a glass of single malt and basking in the warm glow coming from the chiminea as I slowly wipe out whole chapters of evil and/or stupid thoughts, all in the least possible politically correct manner.

And here I've been, all dejected since November; when I could have been fighting the battle on my little piece of the front all along. Thanks David!

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