The 10 Biggest Book Burnings in Literary History

By: Samantha Gray

Slow news days often seem to involve some story or another about literary burnings in America and abroad, with the Harry Potter series and the Qur’an seemingly popular targets for reactionary moral guardians these days. Their torches and (usually metaphorical) pitchforks stem from millennia of censorship and colonialism. As human nature pushes some to destroy or suppress what they can’t understand, book burnings often lead to future frustrations, as academics and other interested readers eventually lose out on valuable scholarly resources. These book burnings represent massive destruction of history and culture, but their impact makes us remember landmark literature, some of which might very well have improved humanity’s lot had they only survived.


    The Library of the University of Louvain

    When German soldiers torched University of Louvain’s library during World War I, scholars across the globe mourned the loss of irreplaceable Renaissance and Gothic literary works and one of the only surviving written examples of a rare Easter Island language. More than 300,000 volumes perished in the blaze along with other priceless historical artifacts and artworks, which generally seem to accompany literature into oblivion in some of the most infamous examples of purging.



    Irish National Archives

    Nobody knows for certain who bombed the Irish National Archives in 1922, resulting in the almost universal loss of the Public Record Office of Ireland. The government blames the Irish Republican Army, the Irish Republican Army claims the whole thing was an accident. Just about the only thing anyone can agree on is the devastating loss of centuries upon centuries of history obliterated completely in one conflagration. A small number of 14th century manuscripts miraculously managed to survive, but these days much of what politicians and academics can glean about Irish official history comes from only the 19th and 20th.



    Burning the Books and Killing the Scholars

    China’s first emperor completely altered the nation’s history by demanding the destruction of Confucian philosophy and literature hailing from defeated regions. Anecdotes – though no definitive proof – also link Qin Shihuangdi to the live burial genocide of scholars he deemed culturally threatening. Obviously, historians have yet to unearth a solid number for the books he destroyed, but the overarching impact his raging paranoia left behind still resonates even today. Entire schools and academic corners may have wound up lost forever as a result!



    The Library of Alexandria

    When the Library of Alexandria, one of the world’s first, burned at the (theorized) behest of a conquering Julius Caesar, academics believe it may actually stand as one of the all-time biggest book burnings. Even factoring out sheer volume, the destruction is undeniably among the most significant examples of completely game-changing book burning. Seeing as how innovations such as the “screw-shaped water pump,” geometry, the Earth’s circumference, and more happened right there, it’s probable that many others went extinct alongside original works by Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers.



    Nalanda University

    This Indian marvel allegedly took months to fully burn to the ground when ransacked by Muslim invaders in 1197. As the most resplendent university of its time (or any time, really), Nalanda University launched in A.D. 427 and pioneered many common higher-ed standards still in use today, such as entrance exams and student housing. Eventually, it came to host the then-largest collection of important Buddhist and Hindu texts, though the school’s popularity had already begun wavering by the time it fell.



    The House of Wisdom

    Known also as Byat Ul-Hikma, The House of Wisdom shares no commonalities with the Baghdad research center destroyed by American troops in 2003 beyond the name. One of the greatest think tanks of the Islamic Golden Age launched in the 760s succumbed to the Mongols during their 1258 invasion. In its prime, however, it acted as the premier center for scientific, philosophical, religious, and mathematical inquiry. Apocryphally, water sources soaked up The House of Wisdom’s blood and ink for months after, but some savvy scholars at least managed to smuggle out some of the manuscripts



    Bonfire of the Vanities

    Girolamo Savonarola, before his excommunication as a Dominican cleric, infamously tried to cleanse Italian society of all things he himself deemed too decadent or pagan. More than just books ended up in the massive bonfires, including art, mirrors, makeup, music, clothing, games, and other aesthetic or luxury goods. Such demonstrations were nothing new in Renaissance Italy, but Savonarola’s particularly piqued the public’s fanaticism and ire alike. His second major event in 1498, which coincided with a new Medici rule, instigated such fervor that riots wound up ravaging Florence.



    Book Burning at Mani

    Today’s historians are lucky to know anything about the Mayan civilization at all since the Bishop of Yucatan Diego de Landa’s purging of its productions on July 12, 1561. An exact number of books and codices remains elusive, with reports ranging from “only” 27 to several thousand. It doesn’t much matter, though. What makes this horrific colonial incident among the biggest in history is how the religion, art, and other traditions of an ancient society almost died out entirely because of one man on one day. Only a small sliver from that awful day remains, merely allowing us a tiny peek into a highly complex former dynasty.



    Make room for the Siku Quanshu

    For more than six decades, the Quinlong Emperor set out cobbling together a massive collection of Chinese history, art, and literature books known as the Siku Quanshu. In order to make room for it in society’s consciousness, anywhere between tens and hundreds of thousands of written works, which spanned about 3,000 titles, wound up utterly destroyed. At least 50 authors faced execution after being labeled evil for criticizing — even questioning — the ruling class. Among the volumes purged were encyclopedias he deemed unfit, some of which managed to escape and appear centuries later.



    New York Society for the Suppression of Vice

    Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice burned so many books, artistic works, and photos, it eventually inspired “Comstock Laws” preventing the United States post office from distributing materials deemed offensive. Starting with its 1873 inception, the organization destroyed literally tons of books in its heyday, citing them as pornographic and detrimental to a moralistic society. Rarely, however, do these demonstrations ever lead to legislation, so Comstock’s cronies left quite a mark on American history.


Facebook Comments