Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On the burning of books

Berlin, July, 2000.

I went to Berlin in 2000.

Our tour group was scheduled to stay in East Berlin the first night. I grew up during the Cold War, so thoughts of East Berlin conjured up mental images of Stazi and cold faces, unkindness and brutality, forty-five years of mandated, preserved, systemic guilt.

Turned out my hotel was gorgeous. First surprise. So was the surrounding area.

I took a walk down a busy street, having no idea where I was but knowing I could turn around and go back from where I came.

After less than half a mile, I found myself at a book fair. I love books. Granted, they were all in German, but it was still a wonderful emotional rush to be in the presence of all that printed word. Books are the unyielding guardians of dormant ideas, waiting for a human eye and brain to cooperate in analyzing them, actualizing them, and transforming them into something amazing.

It was weeks later, after I returned home, that it dawned on me where I had been standing.

It was the Berlin Operahaus, in what is now known as the Bebelplatz.

Seriously. There I was, surrounded by books. All kinds of books, by all kinds of people. All sorts of ideas waiting to be processed. It didn't mean that every idea was legitimate, but it did mean that we had the freedom to choose which ideas were and which ideas weren't, instead of letting someone else choose for us. It meant that we were free to accept ideas and find out later that we were wrong, that we could learn from our mistakes. (Learning from a mistake is normally far more beneficial than learning from a good decision. The eventual end of constant good decisions is a complacent smugness, and usually a sign that we're not challenging ourselves enough.)

Sixty-seven years earlier, Joseph Goebbels had stood in that same plaza and inaugurated his celebrated end to Jewish intellectualism through the destruction of knowledge. It didn't work. The echo of the world's collective outrage still hasn't quite gone silent. But recently, some dangerously misguided reactionaries apparently want to be at it again, destroying books filled with ideas they both fear and know nothing about.

Berlin, May, 1933.
This image is in the public domain.

Burning books because you disagree with them never invites popular goodwill. All it does is galvanize support around your adversaries.

A book is an invitation to dialogue. Take it. Don't burn up the chance.