Burn This Book, edited by Toni Morrison in collaboration with PEN, is a collection of essays and speeches by writers about “censorship and the power of literature to inform the way we see the world, and ourselves” and could not have been released at a better time. In this day and age, many people around the world take free speech and freedom of the press for granted, however; now, just as in the past, writers around the world are being persecuted and oppressed. Remarkably, somehow, they still wake up every morning, pick up their pens, and continue writing.
Morrison explains in her essay, the first of the book, that:
Authoritarian regimes, dictators, despots are often, but not always, fools. But none is foolish enough to give perceptive, dissident writers free range to publish their judgments or follow their creative instincts. They know they do so at their own peril… Therefore the historical suppression of writers is the earliest harbinger of the steady peeling away of additional rights and liberties that will follow.
Her words ring true as several high-profile cases of writers being persecuted have received attention from the international media over the last several weeks. Only recently was American journalist Roxana Saberi released from prison in Iran, and American journalists Laura Ling and Euna Lee still remain in custody in North Korea. But this kind of persecution and oppression isn’t limited to the east. In Turkey, Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, another contributor to Burn This Book, faces trial for his writing and for an interview he gave in 2005. Even more frightening, however, is that fellow contributor Salman Rushdie still has a bounty on his head for a book he wrote over twenty years ago. Even in the United States, where freedom of speech and the press are founding principles of the country and are openly celebrated, Morrison’s book Song of Solomon has recently been banned by a school district in Michigan. The oppression of writers and of the freedom of speech is truly a global epidemic.
Still, it’s not surprising that books are being banned, and that writers are being imprisoned and silenced by other, sometimes violent or even deadly means used by those who sit in power. Luckily, the global community of writers and journalists seems to be aware of the danger that many of their colleagues confront on a daily basis, and also seem determined to stand in solidarity alongside those writers in the most trying of circumstances. For instance, David Grossman writes:
There are times in my workday, after a few hours of writing, when I look up and think: Now, at this very moment, sits another author, whom I do not know, in Damascus or Tehran, in Kigali or Dublin, who, like me, is engaged in the strange, baseless, wonderful work of creation, within a reality that contains so much violence and alienation, indifference and diminishment. I have a distant ally who does not know me, and together we are weaving this shapeless web, which nonetheless has immense power, the power to change a world and create a world, the power to give words to the mute.
In fact, many of the writers that contribute to Burn This Book touch on the sense of camaraderie and community that sustains writers throughout the world. Along the same vein, many of the writers use their essays as opportunities elaborate what they see as the function and responsibility of the dissident writer in his or her society. There seems to be a consensus that to write is to take on the responsibility of speaking the truth in the face of those who would rather not hear the truth be spoken aloud. Russell Banks sums up this sentiment when he writes:
One hopes for as long as human beings tell stories to themselves and to one another, the novelist is at bottom committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom and disregarding the official version of everything. This is why so many novelists have been censored, imprisoned, exiled, or even killed.
For the novelist does not speak in his books for others; the novelist listens to others. Especially to those who otherwise would go unheard. The novelist does not step forward in public to be seen by others; he sees others. Especially those who otherwise would remain invisible. And by his example, as well as by the work itself, he inspires others to listen and to see.
Still, some of the book’s contributors take a different route when explaining why it is that they write. Paul Auster poses the question of “why write?” to himself and answers simply, yet poetically, that “…it is an odd way to spend your life—sitting alone in a room with a pen in your hand, hour after hour, day after day, year after year, struggling to put words on pieces of paper… Why on earth would anyone want to do such a thing? The only answer I have ever been able to come up with is: because you have to, because you have no choice.” In other words, writing is a calling. It’s not simply a hobby or a leisure activity; instead, writing serves a critical function within the writer himself just as it does within society at large. Writing gives writers the tool that they need to navigate, and at times negotiate (whether for better or worse), the world in which they live. This is why writers often write about what they know from their own lives and simultaneously is why writers often write about what they imagine might have happened to them instead.
Burn This Book is a collection of essays that illuminates for its reader the intimate connection between the writer and his work. It provides a glimpse as to how and why writers around the world, that have helped shape the world, continue to put pen to paper and write. It’s also a wake up call that free speech and freedom of the press are threatened around the world everyday, not just in third world countries or countries under authoritarian control, but in countries where one might have felt that these freedoms would be safe. In countries that claim to revere and celebrate the very same principles their governments often aim to crush by snuffing out the fragile flame of hope and inspiration that writing kindles. It brings to our attention that censorship and oppression are not things of the past nor are they things relegated to far away places. Perhaps E.L. Doctorow said it best recently in a speech given at a PEN gala in New York City honoring Tibetan printer and publisher Paljor Norbu and Chinese literary critic, writer, and political activist Liu Xiaobo, both currently imprisoned by the Chinese government and their whereabouts unknown, when he said, as transcribed by The New Yorker:
We can have global swine flu in one season, or global economic slumps in another, but the global working-over of writers, the strangulation of free expression, is for all seasons, it is constant and unremitting—writers are imprisoned and journalists are murdered whether in countries of the right, or in countries of the left. And even sometimes here the strangulation finds its form as school libraries ban books that have offended someone’s sensibilities, as textbook publishers eliminate from their texts scientific facts that are deemed unpalatable by religious zealots, and as our federal government would assume the right to know, from library records, what we’re reading.
So when we stand against the suppression of writers in China or Uzbekistan, in Serbia or Egypt or Vietnam or Zimbabwe, we are defending ourselves, because this is a disease that is catching. Just as torture as a government policy is catching, just as the secret reading of emails and illegal tapping of telephones is catching, just as dismissing international treaties with contempt, is catching…It is why, I have said “to write about the past is to write about the present.”
Burn This Book, a collection of essays by some of the world's most prominent and influential authors, thrusts in the face of its readers that oppression is occurring around the world right now without any sense of apology. However, of the hundreds or maybe thousands of writers being persecuted, exiled, or even killed that have yet to gain any notoriety other than the unwanted attention of a government official, the reader is left only to imagine.