John Sutherland

Burning passions

In 1988, Bradford Muslims didn’t apparently manage to incinerate Rushdie’s book — symbolic, says Kenneth Baker, of the endurance of the written word

This is a book which, as one eyes its lavish illustrations and dips into its elegant prose, looks as if it ought to come with an option to buy a cut-price John Lewis coffee table.

On the Burning of Books is, in fact, much more than that. It wears its scholarship lightly. A weightier treatment of the topic for those interested can be found in Matthew Fishburn’s Burning Books (2008).

Kenneth Baker? A name that rings bells. But what did he do? He enjoyed high office in the Thatcher years. At one point he was touted as a contender for Downing Street. His legacy is the National Curriculum. Best forgotten is the Dangerous Dogs Act. Spitting Image caricatured him, spitefully, as a beslimed slug. He was probably the last politician in England seriously to use Brylcreem.

He has been out of the political game for decades now and, as Baron Baker of Dorking, has enjoyed his later years as a connoisseurial man of letters. Over the years (he is now 81) he has compiled notes on flagrant examples of book-burning. It’s something that gets his goat.

Fishburn devoted thoughtful chapters to what he called humanity’s ‘fear of books’. ‘I’ll burn my books,’ screams a desperate Faustus in Marlowe’s play, thinking thereby to escape the flames of Hell. He doesn’t: he can’t obliterate the books in his brain. He is what he’s read and must burn for it.

Monotonously cited, in various forms, is the Miltonic epigram, ‘Where men are burned, books are burned.’ (Baker recalls being set Areopagitica as an A-level text in 1952: things were different then.) There’s a sacred aura in printed books, even in the lowliest pulp paperback. My Waitrose has a rack or two. But whoever said ‘Where baked beans are burned, men are burned’?

Baker’s book also has a provocative tailpiece.

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