May 2, 2005

When is it okay to burn a book? . . .


In Scotland, Shaun Bythell, owner of The Bookshop in the town of Wigtown is making some of his neighbors extremely uncomfortable with his plan to hold “a public bonfire of old and unread books.” As Adrian Turpin reports in a story for the Financial Times, “Bythell¹s problem is one that most bibliophiles face sooner or later: he has too many books — about 80,000 — many of which have no chance of being sold. Hence the fire.” But in 1997, Wigtown was named “Scotland’s national book town,” and bookselling is one of the town’s biggest businesses. As one local bookseller says, “It’s taken so long for us to get to this position. Do we really want people to think, ‘Oh, Wigtown, that’s the place where they burn books’?” However, says Turpin, “the root of most of these objections is far more instinctive: book-burning remains one of the west¹s most enduring cultural taboos.” Says Michael McCreath, who runs the town’s book festival, “It has such horrendous historical connotations.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.