The book burners are back in town

21st August 1998 at 01:00
ONE OF my ongoing life tasks has been to collect top-class video material that is earmarked for viewing (whisper it) when retirement finally catches up with me. I got this idea from a New York rabbi who by the time he had taped 15,000 hours worth of video realised that there would not be enough time left in his life to watch it all.

I have no intention of falling into this trap, so during the recent vacation, I confess in a moment of boredom, I broke out one video whose historical content I find engrossing. It contains a series of programmes dealing with Nazi Germany, and the rise and fall of Hitler.

One particularly fascinated me because it contained footage of the life and work of Josef Goebbels and material on the Burning of the Books on May 10, 1933. What surprised me was the enthusiasm of party members for consigning works that offended the ruling class to the flames, works that clearly they had not read.

The commentary listed the authors in a roll of dishonour as their works burnt, together with Goebbels's comment: "It is a joy to live!" Well, he was speaking for himself. We live in less interesting times as the Chinese curse-proverb has it, but that is not to say the dangers to our rights to expose ourselves to, or be exposed to, the classics of literature have diminished.

The late minor unpleasantness in Edinburgh and elsewhere concerning rejection of free classics of literature from the Millennium Commission and Everyman Library highlights the dangers we all face from the inexorable trend towards dumbing down, and the politically correct justification offered that at no time and in no way should there exist the possibility of a child being bored.

While I would not go the whole way with Blaise Pascal's suggestion that most of the evils of life come from man's being unable to sit still in a room, I do have a lot of inclination for Sitzfleisch, the ability to stay seated and carry out some useful activity without fidgeting. Reading the classics is ideal. But a survey of literature preferred by 16-year-olds two years ago by St Andrew's College gave strong clues that the classics were well on their way to the horizon, with Iain Banks, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney and Irvine Welsh the top Scottish authors with Highers pupils.

Burns, Scott, RLS have all slid down the greasy pole of interest, and there is not much chance they will clamber up again, while the prospects for Herodotus, Conrad or Dickens are bleak. Why? Exam pressures are cited, presentation (no pictures), probably too many big words. That is still not good enough as an excuse for any de facto exercise of censorship of literature in schools.

At the 1993 annual meeting of the Educational Institute of Scotland, a resolution read: "That this AGM . . . instruct council to organise a campaign against censorship of literature and arts in schools." The point was made that within the contents of a school library "some works are appropriate to the specific curriculum, and others are included on a 'reading for pleasure' basis". (Remember 5-14?) How looking a gift horse in the mouth by turning down a gift of books squares with the pressures on secondaries to provide a rounded curriculum leaves me puzzled.

To my recollection, Everyman Library contains Animal Farm. Now there's a book that should be displayed prominently in every school library in an age of spin doctors, manipulators of information and political correctness. There is a lesson for us all in the sheep bleat of "four legs good, two legs bad" transmuting to "four legs good, two legs better", and the gradual erosion of the Seven Commandments to one.

Thomas Mann found that out the hard way. He suggested that it was impossible for ideas to compete in the market-place if there was no forum for them to compete in. Goebbels burnt his books, and the market-place, in 1933.

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