The image of book burning goes hand in hand with images of violent suppression. The responses are equally strong; violent protests broke out in 2011 after a lone fanatical preacher burnt 20 copies of the Koran in Florida. Biblioclasm can have a deeply political impact, but what significance does it have in our digital world?
Italian artist Antonio Riello has been burning his mother’s library systematically and ritualistically as part of his art exhibition Diabolus in Vitro. In a debate held at the gallery Salon Vert earlier this week, the artist argued that his book burning was entirely personal. Riello claims each cremation is a sacrifice and a labour of love. By housing each work in an intricately designed glass chalice, Riello is attempting to lift each book to an almost relic-like status. Preserving the ‘soul’ of the book by destroying its ‘body’. Notably no copies of holy scripture have featured in the exhibition; It is all lay books, from More’s Utopia to Winnie-the-Pooh and Nigella Bites.
Fiercely defending the opposing corner was Dr Irving Finkel, Assistant Keeper at the British Museum. As the custodian of Mesopotamian cuneiform, one of the earliest forms of the written word and clear believer in the sanctity of print, Finkel’s response to Riello’s work was disgust. Finkel equated the burning of books to murder, quoting Heinrich Heine ” Where they burn books, they will also burn people”.
Author and philosopher Simon May offered a more moderate response. The ashes of his own work ‘Love: A History’ are featured in the collection, and he revealed his initial response was one of revulsion. His stance mellowed as he went on to say that in our digital age where almost every word exists virtually, the act of destroying a single copy could be little more than a personal statement. May was the one speaker who seemed to embrace the digital movement wholeheartedly, claiming to work solely on the computer from research notes to drafts to final proof. He never printed his work out to read through or check and never yearned for the physical object to hold in his hands.
I have to say, I found some of the debate laughable. To suggest the destruction of an inanimate object as equal to killing a living creature is bordering on ludicrous. “Cuneiforms will last forever” claimed Finkel. The idea that anything can exist forever is a very strange and perhaps antiquated idea. We are very impressed by books still in tact from 500 years ago and yet this isn’t even a second in the age of humanity. Where is the distinction between burning a personal library for an art exhibition any more or less destructive than allowing tons of classic literature to rot down, over at Fresh Kills?
Nor do I agree that every written word is worth keeping. Is the telephone directory of 1997 for the Swindon area as significant to mankind as a medieval Bible or the handwritten diary of Samuel Pepys? Probably not.
Finkel did however make the interesting point that our growing dependence on digital forms of the written word leaves us vulnerable to loss, while May reminded us of the famously lost complete manuscript of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, misplaced forever by T E Lawrence as he changed trains at Reading station. No writing is infallible – not paper books, terracotta plates or Microsoft Word.
As changing technologies change the way we interact with the written word, the political power of books changes and becomes ever more personal. What the exhibition and debate did illuminate is the power that the written word has over us still today, in all its forms. Many will be undecided or unconvinced on the current significance of ‘libricide’ but few can deny the beauty of Riello’s work.
Book Burning in the Digital Age and the Art of Antonio Riello was written by London-based writer and journalist, Madeleine Khai.
Antonio Riello’s Diabolus in Vitro will be displayed at Salon Vert until 1 December 2012.
Salon Vert, 82 Queens Gate, SW7 5JU