30th October 1998
Books don’t burn any more
My publishers have emailed the artwork for the cover of my next novel – gold lettering and my hand brandishing a blazing tarot card. It is a disturbing image.
My spine runs cold, not only at the destruction of a mystical image but at the thought of flames, consuming my book.
Jewish texts have always been burned. France’s Louis IX ordered around 10,000 copies of the Talmud to be destroyed in 1242. Paris’s Jews were kept at bay by pikemen as 24 hay wagons brought the mountain of holy scripture to the pyre. Two years later Pope Innocent IV urged him to do it again.
The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote, more than a century before Hitler’s Brownshirts held book-burning parties, “Where men burn books, they next burn people.”
And if you think literature in the West could no longer be consigned to the flames like witches at the stake, remember the scenes that marked the publication of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in 1988. Even before Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini used the Islamic fatwa to put out a $5,000,000 contract on the author, British Muslims in Bradford and elsewhere were buying the novel to destroy it. “It is incumbent on every good Muslim to do everything possible to send Rushdie to hell,” proclaimed Khomeini, as the fires of ge’hinnom were being fed 500-page slabs.
In Kansas City, two years ago, Christian minister John Birmingham burned gay literature outside a library which had accepted a consignment of leaflets and books for homosexuals.
From Pope Innocent to Reverend Birmingham is a 750-year path which starts at the centre of power and peters out somewhere close to nowhere. Even in Iran, serious moves are underway to reverse the fatwa. Because burning books no longer works.
Since The Satanic Verses appeared, a publishing revolution has occurred. Books can be stored on computers, accessible to any computer user anywhere in the world. The World Wide Web puts a vast library in every home. Tens of thousands of texts are already online, with the Gutenberg Project working to scan every out-of-copyright text imaginable. By the new millennium there will be millions available.
For the price of a local phonecall you can download the Talmud from at least a dozen different sites, in under five minutes. What Louis IX almost achieved, and Hitler plotted insanely to complete, can never be done. The Talmud, encoded as an unthinkably long succession of zeros and ones, is an e-book now.
Inspect the index at the NSA archive, assembled by an internet enthusiast with a scanner and access to a mass of Jewish material. If you want anything, there’s no need to ask and nothing to pay – one click and your hard disk takes delivery of the Torah, the Dead Sea Scrolls, a Tanakh timeline, Hebrew and Yiddish dictionaries, Kaballah texts… That’s the roots of the archive – branching out in every direction are full transcripts of the online Jewish discussion groups, clippings from dozens of newspapers which run Jewish-interest stories, pictures from Israel, illustrations from Jewish magazines, overviews of the Palestinian peace process, addresses of US kosher restaurants… And this is just one site.
Here’s another – an advert for some exquisite reproductions of Jewish manuscripts at www.facsimile-editions.com, where brilliantly coloured illuminations from manuscripts such as the Barcelona Haggedah are on show. How Catholic monks and scribes filled their margins with fascinating artwork is well known, because of stories and films such as Umberto Eco’s The Name Of The Rose. Jewish manuscripts are less widely appreciated, though of course they are the equal of anything in Christian libraries.
Barcelona was the centre of this literary style in the 14th century, and because the Passover story is so vivid it inspired some of the most beautiful prayerbooks. This Haggedah reveals how Spanish Jews lived, worked, ate and played before the Renaissance. Only by a succession of miracles could it have survived the bonfires of popes and dictators. Now the original is in the British Library, dozens of facsimiles are in the homes of wealthy book-lovers and the 600-year-old pictures can be downloaded by 50 million computers worldwide.
Even Pope Innocent would have to face the fact – books don’t burn any more.
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