Who burned the most books?

Published: Sat, 03/02/24

In his memoir, ‘Total Recall’, Arnold Schwarzenegger recounts how, as a child living under the Nazi regime in Austria, his family had acquired a picture book depicting the various achievements of the Third Reich. Apparently it was a rather fine volume cataloging works of architecture, engineering, transportation, and various other developments which had taken place in Germany after the National Socialists came to power. The young Arnold and his brother were fascinated by this book and frequently perused it’s pages. Then, one day the police came to the house and announced that they were collecting all books published under Hitler’s rule on the orders of the occupying forces. So, the treasured volume was handed over to be burned. The Nazis did burn books when they came to power, mainly material they considered pornographic and otherwise offensive. The Americans were determined to eradicate everything the Third Reich published.
On the other hand, Operation Paperclip took about 1,600 high ranking Nazis to the USA following the defeat of Germany and employed them in the intelligence services and science, particularly missile programmes. Perhaps the best known example was Wernher von Braun (1912 to 1977) who was a member of the Nazi party and the Allgemeine SS who helped design and developed the V2 rockets during WW2. After the war Braun was employed by the US army and later NASA where he was the chief architect of the Saturn 5 heavy lift launch vehicle. In the 1950s he also worked as a consultant with Walt Disney on a series of popularising the idea of human space travel. Makes me wonder what was in those books which were burned to protect the little people while our masters employed actual Nazis to promote the space programme.
We are redecorating our front room, to be fair, Venetia is doing most the work, and we have taken down the book shelves so that the walls can be repainted. This seems to be a good opportunity to cull some of our books and send the ones we are never likely to read or refer to again to the charity shops. We will still keep quite a library of books that seem important to us. On the other hand, why keep any of them? Who needs books anymore as everything you could want to know is available online? So, why cut down the trees to make the paper?
Books certain advantages. They can be burned, but otherwise they are pretty durable. As long as a book exists it carries an exact record of the writer’s knowledge, ideas, and narrative, in his or her own words. Any digital file online can be manipulated and edited at any time. AI can be tasked to seek out and edit, or delete, words, images, even audio and video at any time. There has been a particularly blatant and bizarre example of AI distorting history in the past week. Google’s Gemini AI system has been presenting some very strange images when asked for pictures of Vikings or the Founding Fathers of the USA. So bizarre in fact that I am not sure it wasn’t done deliberately to highlight the dangers of AI, check out the link below. Either way, we would be in serious trouble if AI decides to ‘update’ our literary heritage. The other risk is simply a technical crash which wipes out digital storage. Books by contrast last a
long time if cared for and I have several volumes which are over 100 years old and still perfectly readable.
A remarkable story of the survival of a text is the finding of the manuscript from which the Poetic Edda is taken. Snorri’s prose Edda, our main source of Norse mythology, had been known and read since it’s composition in the 13th Century. However, the source material which Snorri had worked from was believed to be lost. Then, in 1643, Bishop Brynjoff presented a manuscript to the King of Norway which contained the Volspa, the Havamal, and many other poems essential to our understanding of the runes and Norse philosophy and cosmology. It is now generally accepted that although the codex presented to the King dates from the 1270s, it must have been copied from a now lost manuscript written around 1200. No one knows how or where the manuscript survived for nearly 400 years before it reached the king, but survive it did, and all who read it today are culturally enriched by the experience. Most of us today read the Eddas in
translation. However, scholars who wish to peruse the original (or at least direct copies) are free to do so. Will uncorrupted digital files survive for 800 years? I somehow doubt it.
Many hundreds of years ago the writer of Ecclesiastes complained that: ‘Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body.’ Chapter 12 verse 12. I wonder what he would have made of the modern deluge of information which threatens to drown us every day? I may need fewer books in my life. However, I find that the most valuable volumes seem to find their way to me, as and when I need them. I am also more selective in the contents of my library. Yet, the books I do study carefully feed my mind and soul in a way that no other medium can.
It may seem that real books have little or no place in a world of endless digital distractions. However, books have transmitted knowledge, wisdom, and culture from century to century. The repeated study of one volume may seem like hard and boring work compared with say, watching a TV series on Netflix. However, some books will share insights to us today which we cannot access any other way since the author may have been dead for decades, if not centuries. Books may also be guardians of fact and truth as the original text cannot be manipulated or edited without leaving obvious traces.
Books from the past have made essential contributions to the creation of our civilization. As we lose the ability to study books that matter our culture degrades and society crumbles. Let us make sure that we do not fail to leave future generations at least as good a legacy as we have benefited from.
Link to Gemini AI, although I am not quite sure what the objective was, it has got people angry and distracted which might have been the intention. It does indicate how AI can mess with reality. https://www.informationliberation.com/?id=64307
PS Seminar in Salisbury on the 9th if anyone is interested https://iceandfire.org.uk/salisbury090324.html
Graham Butcher
21 Beaver Road
Beverley East Yorkshire HU17 0QN

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