When I’ve mentioned our intention to host a book burning to anyone over the last few months, I’ve invariably been met with suspicion, shock and responses like the one I received on LinkedIn in the event’s aftermath – “idiots”. There’s also a very definite gasp and a physical shift of discomfort with people. And then a conversation gently breaks.
That’s what CinePunked is all about – facilitating discussion. We will walk the unknown path and ask the questions that need asked. We want to get people thinking. Sometimes we have to remember the ‘Punk’ in CinePunked, and be a little bolder and transgressive in the way that we do it.
Book burnings themselves have long been associated with oppressive ideologies, states attempting to control their populations, religious fundamentalists attempting to eradicate the faith and teaching of others. The Chinese rulers did it – Chairman Mao bragged about not just get rid of the books, but the scholars who wrote them too. Hitler’s regime attempted to erase any trace of Jewish writing. More recently we’ve had ministers leading burnings of Harry Potter books because of their possible occult influence. Book burnings are not new by any stretch, but most of the time they are utilised as a negative force.
For #BurnAllBooks I took Ray Bradbury’s classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 as our starting point. A book which envisages a world where all books are banned, and subsequently adapted for the screen by Francois Truffaut (and lensed by Nic Roeg). These two pieces solidify the oppression and resistance. They make clear the dangers of a world without literature, where the screen dominates, where free thought is discouraged. There are parallels between Bradbury’s vision, and the world we live in today – where truth is dismissed as ‘fake news’, where what we read is being heavily monitored and policed and where many on social media end up living in echo chambers.
For the debate, I gathered a panel of people I thought would be interesting to listen to, who could see the benefit of the form of interactivity we would culminate the event in, and importantly, who all have a vested interest in physical book publishing. Myself (Robert JE Simpson), contributor to several books, and small press owner; Dr Rachael Kelly, a published writer of both film history and of fiction books; Steven Rainey, who has just edited and published a book on the music industry; Neil Sedgewick, a critic, who is contributing to the upcoming CinePunked anthology books.
We weren’t just a group of activists who don’t care, instead we do. And at least one of the panel was very anxious beforehand about actually putting a book in a fire.
The resulting conversation (which we recorded and will be released on the podcast in a few weeks) explored various levels of censorship (social, moral, political) and the psychological reverence we hold towards books over, for example, VHS.
Our audience, braving the pouring rain amid a mercifully covered area of the Babel rooftop bar at Bullitt Belfast, and helped push the conversation into new areas – including a little about recent events in China and Hong Kong.
As the climax, we prepared for the book burning itself. We explained our reasons and set about the actual burning.
From comments I’ve received after the event, it’s clear that people were appalled at the thought that we might actually burn books – and I actually had friends tell me they didn’t think that’s what we were going to do, in spite of it being spelled out in all our advance publicity. People were uncomfortable with the very idea, without even trying to engage with the project. There was also an irony in our event being held as part of the programme for the Belfast Book Festival – a festival celebrating the written and printed word, and designed to sell books, and yet here we were promoting the active eradication of the same product.
Art should provoke thought and conversation, challenge our expectations. CinePunked has always sought to engage with our audiences directly – to facilitate difficult conversations, to prompt clarity from audience and facilitators alike. And this first version of Burn All Books not only achieved that, but showed us potential paths to move the conversation down, and reaffirmed the challenges we face in hosting an event like this.
The burning itself was initiated with a collective commital of Fahrenheit 451 to the flames – it was after all the book that prompted the conversation. After that, each of us took it in turn to dispose of something of our own choice. The full details will be in the podcast recording, but for the whole, they weren’t chosen because of literary (un)merit, but because of personal attachments for ourselves. Two of us actually committed books we’d worked on into the fire, one a published text, the other, a notebook full of project ideas and notes. There was a mixture of sombreness and frivolity as this stage progressed.
You can watch some of that process here:
Neil Sedgewick’s ceremonial burning of his Films & Faith notebook added a poignancy to proceedings. This was to publicly mark the end of his Films & Faith project, a deeply personal act which we are proud to have facilitated. Neil has written about his own experiences on the evening via his blog in a piece entitled “Burn your ghosts“.
Burn All Books addresses taboos associated with censorship head on and makes us reassess our attitudes, our complicity in the toxicity of others, but also the need to break through our own perceptions and take ownership of acts and craft them into something fresh.
This is the first chapter. We intend to pick up on the conversation again elsewhere. Please do get in touch if you’re interested in doing something with the project. And keep an eye on the podcast for the release of the recording of the evening’s debate in the near future.
A gallery of images from the event is on Facebook here.