B. Venkat Mani is the author of the newly released book, Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany’s Pact with Books.
One of the most disconcerting memorials to the destruction of books and libraries in the world is the Monument in Memory of the Burning of Books in Berlin. Designed by the famous Israeli artist Micha Ullman, the monument commemorates the Nazi book burnings of works by liberals, communists, and Jewish intellectuals, on May 10, 1933. It consists of a glass lid on top of subterranean pit (of about 175 cubic feet) lined with empty bookshelves painted white—the emptiness exacerbated by the naked rods of glowing fluorescent light. The viewer has a top-down perspective of the bookshelves through the glass top—there is no other form of access. All one sees are stark empty bookshelves, inviting the visitor to imagine the names of authors and titles of books—national and foreign—included on the yearly lists of “unwanted books” brought out by the Nazis that might have filled this pit of a library.
The monument represents one of the darkest moments in human history, when fascist forces destroyed a nation’s pact with its own people: discriminating against them on the basis of their religion, writing them out of all forms of public life, and ultimately killing them. On November 1, 1938—five years after the 1933 book burnings—the Reichsschrifttumskammer banned Jews from all public libraries and robbed them of their borrowing privileges. As the German poet Heinrich Heine had presciently stated in his play Almansor (1823), “It was only a prelude, that there, where they burn books, in the end they also burn people.”
The core of a democratic republic is its reading public. By becoming signatories of our national constitution, “we the people” sign a pact with ourselves, and with the most important book that defines the nation. By guaranteeing citizens and other residents of the republic the freedom of speech and the freedom to read, the constitution seals our pact with books, our ability to freely engage with diverse ideas, and perspectives without fear of suppression.
With the upcoming change in power in the US, what is at stake is our pact with the constitution—the handbook of our democracy—indeed our pact with books.
Why should this change of privacy law by a library, or a statement by a library association matter in the larger scheme of things? First, because we live in an age of information, where we know that information we access is subject to constant surveillance. Second, as the distance between the polity and the policy of the incoming administration seems to grow everyday even before the official transfer of power, library professionals are recommitting themselves to the ALA statement on “Freedom to Read,” crafted at the height of McCarthyism, when the pact with books was threatened by one man’s thirst for power and ideological paranoia.
The house of books, the Bibliothek, is far from a neutral space. Historical moments of power transfer—whether by decree, conquest, colonialism—often entailed the pillaging and destroying of established libraries (see Rebecca Knuth’s Libricide), or complete control of books through state censorship, surveillance, and other forms of what I call bibliophobia. Bibliophobes understand the power of books and libraries, which is why they try to suppress access to reading, so they can weaken our pact with books.
The Nazis were bibliophobes of the highest order. On the one hand, they banned and/or burned books by German-Jewish authors, forced them, along with booksellers and publishers into exile, or murdered those who could not escape. On the other hand, they also built public libraries in the thousands. They understood the medial power of books and libraries, and used them as weapons of propaganda against Jewish-Germans.
We have a president-elect for whom retweeting a quote from a fascist like Mussolini makes no difference because “he wants to be associated with interesting quotes.” For his clan of supporters, performing Nazi salutes after a few drinks might be the new normal. For his surrogates, there is no such thing as facts.
The real repercussions of the new government on our cultures of reading are yet to be seen. However, it is up to us that we do not allow neo-Nazi bibliophobes to jeopardize our pact with books. As Dwight D. Eisenhower tellingly stated in 1953, “Don’t join the book burners.”
B. Venkat Mani’s Recoding World Literature: Libraries, Print Culture, and Germany’s Pact with Books can be purchased at Fordham University Press’s website or Amazon.com.