What does it mean to bury a book in the ground? What books are buried, where, by whom, and why? Books are second only to human bodies as objects of reverence and fascination: to think about books as artefacts involves peeling back layer after layer of meaning and significance.
The places for books are governed by long-established conventions: they belong in libraries, shops, homes and (for some of us) workplaces. Within these spaces they belong on horizontal shelves, stacked in rows, standing on their ends, with their spines facing outwards.
Untidy row of books.
Given how vulnerable books are to damage, moisture and fire it can feel almost painful to find them stored in damp places, stacked in heaps, or otherwise treated carelessly. The fact that books are such fundamentally domestic objects, associated with orderly, dry, indoor space, makes the burial of books in the cold wet earth a fascinating and disturbing idea.
My aim in this site is to examine the motives, meanings, contexts and consequences of burying books in the ground. These accounts of book burying are drawn from history, literature, art and archaeology. They illustrate the point that in burial (as in every other context) a book is never just a book.
It is hard to define exactly what a book is (and is not), but I prefer to treat it as an open and inclusive category that includes the Encyclopedia Britannica, The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Fifty Shades of Grey alongside the Gutenberg Bible, the Yellow Pages and The Satanic Verses.
Burying books is not a particularly uncommon or new idea, nor is digging them up. The motivations for the burial of books, illuminated in the case studies below, include destruction, preservation, concealment and sacrifice.
According to Islamic tradition and the writings of Ibn Abbaas, cousin of the Prophet Mohammed, holy or magical books were buried under the throne of the Prophet Sulaiman. There are different interpretations of this: in some accounts the books were holy texts buried by Sulaiman and dug up and defaced by demons or Shayatin.
Solomon/Sulaiman and a book
In other accounts the books were buried by the Shayatin to discredit Sulaiman: “they wrote down books of black magic and blasphemy which they buried underneath the throne of Sulaiman. After Sulaiman’s death, they uncovered these books and said to the people: Verily, Sulaiman used to prevail with the help of these books.” (Ibn Katheer 2001: 17-18)
During his imprisonment on Robben Island in the 1970s Nelson Mandela wrote his autobiography, which was copied and smuggled out of the prison by friends. The original manuscript was hidden inside empty cocoa jars and buried in the prison courtyard: Mandela describes how he and his comrades surreptitiously dug the pit with iron spikes.
The manuscript was hidden for barely two weeks before they were uncovered during building works in the prison, and as punishment Mandela and his comrades were deprived of their study privileges for four years (Mandela 1994: 464-6). These two accounts – set thousands of years apart – illustrate one of the common themes in book burial: the need to conceal dangerous and powerful books.
While burying books is a rare and poorly-recorded practice, burning books has been an important theme throughout history. It has occurred as censorship, repression and accident from the time of Pompeii and the Library of Alexandria to the Spanish Inquisition and the Third Reich.
Nazi book-burning, 1933
The term ‘libricide’ implies that the destruction of books is analogous to murder; in fact the annihilation of libraries has often been a part of genocide and ethnic cleansing from the Albigensian Crusade to the Chinese occupation of Tibet (Knuth 2003). In recent years the deliberate, accidental or even alleged destruction of copies of the Koran has led to lynchings, criminal prosecutions and violent protests around the world (BBC 2010).
In this era of environmental consciousness, the mass destruction of books – for legal, logistical or economic reasons – is typically carried out by pulping; the recycling of paper into cardboard or similar materials. For tax reasons, booksellers’ surplus stock is often returned to publishers with the covers torn off, while publishers will often dispose of unsellable books to save storage costs. The books are dissolved into a milky pulp and reformed into paper products.
The more high-profile book pulpings occur when a publisher or author is sued for libel or accused of plagiarism. For example, in 2007 Cambridge University Press pulped several thousand unsold copies of the book Alms for Jihad (Burr and Collins 2006) after the mere threat of a libel case by businessman Sheikh Khalid bin Mahfouz (Jones 2007).
Pulping and burning are methods of mass-destruction, but burying books is less final, and tends to take place on a much smaller scale (although there are exceptions). The accounts of book burying that I’ll be posting here serve to illustrate the extraordinary life histories of books and libraries and the rich array of cultural, religious, political, artistic and intellectual themes that they illuminate.
BBC. 2010. Men arrested in Gateshead over suspected Koran burning.
Burr, J.M. and R.O. Collins. 2006. Alms for Jihad: charity and terrorism in the Islamic world. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Ibn Katheer. 2001. Stories of the Qur’an. El Mansoura: Dar Al-Manarah.
Jones, P. 2007. US libraries hold on to pulped book. The Bookseller
Knuth, R. 2003. Libricide: the Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Mandela, N. 1994. Long walk to freedom: the autobiography of Nelson Mandela. London: Little, Brown.