Breaking Dawn and burning books

17 August 2008

Back in the late nineties, I had a very nice royal blue v-necked jumper from French Connection.

Quite often when I wore this jumper, people would say to me 'that colour is a bit Margaret Thatcher isn't it?', and I would say 'it used to be, but now I've reclaimed it for the Left.' If you live in most parts of the world that exchange may strike you as slightly bizarre, but you'll just have to take my word for it that round my way, some explanation seemed to be required for the wearing of royal blue. It's grim up North London.

My answer usually shut people up in any case. From which I think we can conclude that some things, for example the colour royal blue, can still be reclaimed by people with good values. Other things can't be - and I would argue that the burning of books falls firmly into the latter category.

Last week, Diane Shipley wrote a post for the Guardian blog about the response of Amazon reviewers to Stephenie Meyer's new book Breaking Dawn, the fourth and final part of the Twilight series. I haven't read any of the books, and so Diane's post was the first I'd heard that there are now thousands of Amazon reviewers in discussion forums expressing their outrage at the way in which Stephenie Meyer concluded the series. Some readers are suggesting burning the book, and others are suggesting returning it to the publisher. In her post, Diane acknowledges the historical associations of book burning and that 'in most people's minds, it's akin to a hate crime.' But she goes on to ask 'is burning a book really such a bad thing to do? Apart from the potential danger of setting a fire, and the slight environmental impact, what is so wrong with a group of former Meyer fans setting their Breaking Dawns alight?'

Twilight: Breaking Dawn in flames

There are a few separate issues here. First of all, I believe that yes, burning books is just bad. It's not akin to a hate crime exactly, but it's still bad. The Nazis didn't burn particular books because they just didn't like them very much and needed a convenient way of disposing of them. Without wanting to empathise too much, I would guess that they chose book burning as their preferred method because there is something intrinsically terrifying and aggressive about fire, and the act of setting fire to things. If you've ever witnessed a house fire, or indeed any kind of burning, you'll have some idea of what I'm talking about. So one thing that is wrong with book burning as a response to being slightly disappointed with the ending of a book, is that it's a hugely aggressive and disproportionate response.

The second thing wrong is 'just' the symbolism. Unlike my (possibly slightly absurd) blue jumper analogy above, book burning is not something that just has a vague association with someone a bit horrid. If, instead of my lovely blue jumper, I'd decided to spend much of the late nineties wearing a dress covered in swastikas, I couldn't have been surprised if I'd offended people. Even if I'd said 'but it's just a shape, only since the 1930s has it carried that unpleasant association', that just wouldn't cut it. Nor would it be okay if my employer suddenly decided that 'work makes you free' might be an inspirational slogan to put above the front door of Pan Macmillan. Nor would it be a good idea for me to wear a white hood instead of a nice big sun hat on holiday. I feel I'm labouring the point here, so I'll stop. But some things are now too closely associated with brutality and oppression to be lightly cast aside.

Finally though, I found large parts of the Amazon discussions on the topic of Breaking Dawn astonishing in the vitriol directed at the author by many of the participants. What they reminded me of most of all was Stephen King's Misery; some reviewers genuinely seemed to think that the author owed it to them personally to conclude the series in their preferred way. It doesn't seem to have registered with these people that sometimes the ending of a book is annoying and you just have to get over it. Sometimes it's really annoying. You should have seen me when I finished The French Lieutenant’s Woman. So whilst I can sympathise with these people being cross that they loved the series and then were disappointed, they clearly should not burn their copies of the book. Nor should they return them to the publisher. They should just complain to their friends, and hope for better luck next time.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm just off to stage a protest outside the House of Commons about the fact that Miles and Anna never got together at the end of This Life.