Wednesday 30 September 2020

Burning the Books

Burning the Books: A history of knowledge under attack by Richard Ovenden 


Ovenden writes of the importance of knowledge and creative thought. 


The Benedictine monks of Canterbury preserved the writing of the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Ovid, Soppho – “most were destroyed by that fat oaf Henry VIII – the manuscripts were sold off to local grocers to wrap their wares.”


“But all too often civilization, with its many book and competing ideas, has presented a feeble self-doubt in the face of marching fanaticism. A reading culture is multiple, full of competing viewpoints. The fanatic surveys the world with a monochrome simplicity, and before advancing to burning people, always begins with books, statures and memory.”


The great library of the ancient world at Alexandria, with thousands of scrolls. Many were lost in a fire during Caesars’ campaign and destroyed by religious extremists – both Christian and early Muslims, who despised other narratives. Legend says the scrolls were used to heat the 4,500 baths of Alexandria’s lasted 6 months. 


Today we have control by tech companies – “the worlds memory has now been outsourced to these companies without society realising the fact or really being able to comprehend the consequences.”

Rather than enforcement, the better way is through education and teaching philosophy. Knowledge is the key. So is freedom of speech. Now we have speech censorship and safe spaces in universities. We must beware censorship, while also hate speech must not be allowed. We must beware the blind and ignorant fanatic. 


I believe change can’t occur on the grand scale – but rather with those small ripples we send out on the small scale. Its about changing the system too and having a government used to working in a consensual way and collaborating – and not as the UK government with its 2 man show used to pushing their weight around. 


As the caliph Omar said, with impeccable logic, “If these books of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”

There is the awful image of the young German students burning books in Berlins Unter den Linden in 1933, with Goebbels boasting about ‘wanting to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.’ We must beware censorship.


Knowledge and philosophy, libraries, bookshops and education are the key to a better future.

Stalin had a philosophy steamer expel all the creative thinkers and artists. Because independent, creative art and thought is a threat to dictators everywhere. Scarily we also have the rise of fierce extremists’ echo chambers and thought police on social media and big Tech platforms. There is so much out there – we must check who are sources actually are.


Ovenden is head librarian at the Bodleian oxford and devoted to the preservation of books – a key tool in the defence of open societies. 


Fanatics burn knowledge 



BURNS Photos

May liberty meet wi success

May prudence protest her frae evil

May tyrants and tyranny tine i the mist

And wander their way to the deil! 

For the past years I have been following in Robert Burns footsteps and reading of the national Scots bard. As I live north of Glasgow I’ve been able to make several journeys down to Burns country in Ayrshire to find the real Burns behind the many myths. Here are some of my favourite Burns photos.

Burns wanted to be a Bard for all of Scotland, not only Ayrshire – and so in 1787 he embarked on travels by horseback across the Borders, the west highlands and further north. He collected songs and poems, to help keep Scots heritage alive. Its not widely recognised but he gained great inspiration from many English poets, such as Alexander Pope and other writers and his letters are written in English. But it was when he read Robert Fergusson’s poetry in Scots, he realised the power of his native tongue. So he combined the force of Scots and the imagery of English. He also knew Latin and French and had been tutored by his father and a young teacher John Murdoch. He was also a great reader. 


Burns pens

Ellisland farm beside the river Nith

Burns desk Ellisland looking over the orchard 

Burns was a unique mix of his mother's ballads and his fathers education. He worded hard, wrote and read constantly. Robert Burns 1759 - 1796


Burns first book of poems published


 Oct. Again in Edinburgh and wrote songs for the Scots Musical Museum. Dec met Nancy.

1788. Left Edinburgh and married Jean in April and moved to build a farmhouse Ellisland north of Dumfries. Jean joined December at the farm. Trained to be an exciseman collecting taxes. 

1790 Feb. Third Volume of Scots Musical Museum with 40 songs published.

At Hallowe’en composed Tam O’Shanter. 


1791 Moved to Dumfries in October 

July his brother William died at 13. 


Fourth volume of poems published with 47 of my poems. Nancy left for Jamaica in January 1792. Elizabeth Riddell born November.

April given the Dumfries first foot and walk, which paid more.

Reform was happening. John Taylor was arrested and accused by Robert Dundas as a ringleader – ‘of a mob, raged in a riotous and tumultuous manner.’  And brought before Creech. A witness was Robert Graham of Fintry and Alexander Nasmyth was on the jury. Burns asked him to design scenery for the new theatre. 

Sent Creech poems autumn 1792 and signed myself Ca ira, a wild flourish! 



Creech published Second Edinburgh Edition, 2 volume edition of Burns Poems. 

The French king was executed. Burns suffered extreme mood swings and conflicts – hypochondria he called it. 'I often despaired, suffered low moods. The more I was in the position of authority the more I rebelled!'

May moved to a red brick 2 storey town house, Mill fennel, 


James Glencairn born August. 


Joined the Dumfries volunteers. Sept Elizabeth died. Burns fell ill. 


December fifth volume of  Scots Music Museum published with 3 Burns songs – 

Dancing was independence. Burns died july 1796


Dumfries house

First Book Poems Chiefly in the Scotch Dialect