No civilised person is supposed to make bonfires of books. ‘Wherever they burn books they will also, in the end, burn human beings,’ wrote the German poet Heinrich Heine in the century before Nazism. Burning books is a sacrilegious act, and the taboo against it particularly binds writers. So what was I doing in a Somerset field lighting a match under the 32 volumes of the Encyclopædia Britannica?
In my defence, this was more of a cremation than a burning at the stake. The books were already dead, terminally rotted after years of neglect. If I had committed a crime, it was to let them get into this sorry state, not finally to put them out of their misery.
It was a long, slow ignominious end for what was once a proud, admired collection. I don't think anyone with a regard for learning could watch them burn without being deeply pained; and being responsible for their demise piled guilt on top of the anguish. But like any funeral, this blaze was essentially about showing respect. Rather than just tossing the encyclopædias away, I wanted to take the chance to reflect on what such books have meant to their owners, and how that has changed over time. And the more I thought about it, the more ambiguous the picture became.Click here for the full piece.