JF Ptak Science Books LLC Post 882
Seeing the expanding number of sales catalogs arriving in the mail for the holiday season put me in the mind for this post.
In the Areopagitica John Milton reaches into the heavens to condemn the destroyer of all books, finding them soulless monsters who would destroy Reason itself. Well, there are monsters like this that may be demons, and monsters that may be anointed avengers, tunneling Milton or not.
Books have been destroyed for as long as they have been made, for reasons as varied as those for their writing: the motivations for biblio-devastation are ever-reaching. Perhaps the most astounding and appalling of them all resides in the fetid memory and fouled grave of the Chinese emperor Shi Huang Ti (third century BCE), who in his 49 years of life liquidated nearly every book in China, psychotically determined to make himself the most-remembered person in history by eliminating history itself. Not to be outdone by books, he eliminated authors as well. And scholars.
Authors not only have been killed for their works, some have followed them directly into the flames. Michael Servetus, who has a complicated history and who was found wanting in his relationship with church orthodoxy on many levels, met his end on a pyre with his books. One of those books, a medical text, challenged the (religious) orthodoxy of the brain being the seat of all power and wisdom of the body, stating that it was the heart that pumped the blood and not the head, providing another chink in the armor of theological doctrine. Pissed as the reigning Christians were with this belief, this book probably was not the thing that most annoyed them, but it also didn't help his case, either. But no matter, he and his books were burned together to ashes for reasonable and logical thought.
But getting back to our Postman's Dream: Ulysses, The Grapes of Wrath, Lettres d'un Provincial, Leaves of Grass, Analects of Confucius are all burned books, and books burned in massive, orchestrated displays, and all of which share the same incendiary thread with the postman's nightmare, the Sears & Roebuck Catalog. It was the other wrist-bending catalogs too that wound up in various burning piles in America in the early 20th century, though they didn't find their ways there like other burned and banned books--this wasn't personal, just business. As it turns out local business throughout the country felt threatened by mail order businesses, and that these remotely-located companies were reaching into the local community and extracting the money that should've been going to local concerns. And so to fight this economic invasion there were town-wide book burnings of whichever of these extra-local catalogs could be found. These first mass book burnings in America was a completely unsatisfactory response to their threat, as townsfolk quickly voted with their pocketbooks, whether their shirtsleeves were burned in the catalog fires or not, the smokey burden of free enterprise. It was the least wise way of fighting this new wave of competition, obviously, but the idea held enough firey charm to have made itself felt in the pages of history. It was also just another short step in the continuing buy-local hardship that has been fought in this country since the Concord pin-maker was threatened by the larger pin-making factory in Boston in the 18th century.
And so far as the postman goes, burning the catalogs wouldn't have helped them, either--they just would have had to deliver a replacement copy, adding to their work load, burdened further in the Christmas crush.