J.K. Rowling has recently been both praised and scorned for her outspoken opposition on social media to President Donald Trump. Whilst many people admire Rowling’s ethical stance, some loyal Trump supporters found her views so difficult to stomach that they informed her of their intention to burn their copies of the Harry Potter books.

When I think of burning books, I think of examples such as the Nazi regime’s infamous mass book burnings or the destruction of Lollardist texts in England under Henry IV; in other words, large-scale organised acts of censorship carried out for political reasons. In comparison to this, a handful of Twitter users threatening to burn their copies of Harry Potter hardly seems like a major concern; burning copies of Harry Potter will not change the majority of J. K. Rowling’s fans’ opinion of her, nor is it likely to change anything for fans of Trump. Rowling herself has even made it clear in her responses to the protestors that she is unconcerned about copies of her works being destroyed. In a humorous tweet on the 1st of February she stated: “actually, we’re thinking of selling them in pairs in future; a ‘read one, burn one’ deal for those who like the magic, but not the morals”. This contemporary twitter-driven book burning is not a widely significant act of censorship: it won’t make a dent in the number of copies of Harry Potter books, in dozens of languages, that exist in the world. So what is the significance of the image of a burning book in the Twitter age?

Book burning under the Nazi regime

What is interesting about this example of modern day book burning is the way in which it highlights the strange interaction between the printed word and the word on the screen. What people read on the internet, be it real or fake, is becoming increasingly influential on their political views. A recent study by Aviva reveals that the average household in the UK now has more than eight devices linked to the internet, whilst one in 10 people do not own a single book, and many bookshops are permanently closing their doors.[1] All the signs point to the conclusion that the printed word is becoming less important, yet the continued use of book burning – a form of protest as old as the written word itself – suggests otherwise.

As a book lover, I find the idea of a book being burned demoralising, even if it’s a book containing views that I fundamentally disagree with. The physicality and tangibility of burning a book is far more heart breaking than deleting a file from a computer. Although I spend a great deal of time on the internet and social media sites, the word on the page still bears more weight for me, and I can’t see this ever changing. For individuals who carry out book burning in the modern age, however, things are not quite the same. The only reason why the burning of the Harry Potter books made any kind of statement is because it was shared on Twitter. The physical burning of the printed book was the protest itself, but the protest was made known and garnered attention because of the digital sharing capabilities of the internet. Judging by the amount of news content generated by those tweets to Rowling telling her that her books were being burnt, it seems incontrovertible that this was indeed an effective means of protest.

I would not be surprised, therefore, in a time where social media is tightening its grip on our lives and moderate politics is shrinking away, if book burning continues to be used as a form of protest. Depressingly, even if it seems like books are becoming less important, there are always headlines to be made in destroying them.

[1] http://www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/news/10-of-people-do-not-own-a-single-book-b0bl35qbj?CMP=Spklr-_-Editorial-_-FBPAGE-_-TheTimesandTheSundayTimes-_-20170122-_-785013898&linkId=33650180