Burning Down the Library

Peruse it or Lose it LibraryIn 2003 posters went up around Los Angeles featuring cuddly dogs and the cutest of kittens.  Above them, in big block letters, were the words:

We will kill our pets to protest the War.

If President Bush didn’t pull out of Iraq, the poster went on to say, “We, the Raelian Pet Owners United to Stop War, will kill our pets.”  It listed a date and time.  At a dog park, of course.

It was hilarious … and actually generated a police investigation … but it was only so interesting.  Because of course the Los Angeles Cacophony Society (the poster’s true author) wasn’t really going to kill any pets, and of course George Bush wasn’t going to pull out of Iraq, and there was nothing any members of the public could do about it anyway.  So, yeah:  very funny joke, but nothing to see here.

Ten years later, two Arizona Burners may have just done Cacophony one better.

In July Admiral Fiesta and Sista Turtle Dove began work on the “Peruse it or Lose it Library,” which had its first shelf life at last weekend’s Arizona Decompression.  The premise is simple:  they built a library for Decompression, and at the end of the event they burned it – along with whatever books were left.

If you didn’t want a book to burn, you … yes, you, the person walking by … had to take it.  Otherwise it went up in flames.

“We were compared to Nazis on several occasions,” Admiral Fiesta told me.  “To paraphrase a friend’s argument on Facebook, the Nazis were burning books as an act of censorship – particularly censorship of deviant art and pornography.”

The Nazis, however, were not famous for willingly letting things go.  The “Peruse it or Lose it Library” was different:  practically begging passers-by to be their own Schindler.

“During the event I had many people come up to me and ask, ‘Are you really going to burn books on Saturday?’” Sista Turtle Dove said.  “My typical response was, ‘Only if there are any left…’”

Another problem with the Nazi comparison … at least for Burners … is precisely that this is an art project at a Burning Man event,  where we burn lots of art.  Do we have a problem with burning art?  When did that happen?

“We burn all kinds of art at Burning Man – sculpture, painting, anything we can get our hands on. So why is the printed word such a sacred cow?” asked Admiral Fiesta.  “The point of this project, to me, was to make people question their stance on whether it is OK to burn a book, what kind of book it is OK to burn, if it’s OK to burn other types of art, and also question their stance on the role of books in a media-saturated cultural landscape. I will admit that I wasn’t super clear on how I personally felt about these issues, going into the project – that was part of the point as well, to clarify my own beliefs about this.”

Sista Turtle Dove points out that this is especially important when the very nature of “books” is in transition.

“Many of the conversations I have had with people about this project involved the reliability of books verses digital media,” she said.  “Yes, e-books for instance are handy…but in the end changeable and semi permanent. As a writer and an academic, I love the research section of the library. Over the years it seems like these sections are simply gathering more and more dust. Some of my best friends who love to read have given up on the printed page in favor of the easy access e-books on online literature provide. I wanted this project to remind people printed books are still incredibly important…not only for their permanence (of course you can burn them, but you can’t change their words once they are printed) but for their reliability.  Since the beginning, what I have felt is the most important message in this piece is that if you don’t use books, they will cease to exist in a significant way.”

So what do you think happened?  A small library containing paperbacks and hard backs, fiction and non, is brought out to a decompression with the message:  take a book or we burn it?  How does this play out?

Here’s how Sista Turtle Dove described the scene:

“I went to the burn site to check and see if the books were going to burn late Saturday evening.  I walked up to the library (which I had not seen all day) and was surprised to see about 30ish books left on the shelves. The Rangers on perimeter asked me if there was anything I wanted to remove from the piece before it burned. Looks like these books WERE going to burn! I looked over the shelves and was not surprised with most of what was leftover. The seeds of the library came from my own collection, and most of these books left were books I didn’t enjoy, or never planned to read again. However nestled amongst some rather boring Steven King novels was a copy of Jane Eyre (one of my favorites…I own a hard cover version…but I wasn’t about to let the paperback burn) so I took that book back. Honestly, I was a little disappointed no one had picked that one up.  Also, a copy of one of my favorite true crime novels “The Green River Killer” which I had been hesitant to give away in the first place (I’ve owned that book since high school), but through someone else might enjoy it as much as I did. There was part of me that was glad it wasn’t adopted…I was happy to have it back…I will definitely re-read that again.”

Then they lit the thing, and watched it glow.

“The burn itself left me feeling a little detached,” Sista Turtle Dove said.  “I saw some of the people who had been most opposed to the book burning standing close to the burning books, looking on with varied expressions of both loss and understanding. The books burned bright, and the reflection of that flame in the faces of the onlookers left me feeling like we had done something important, and although the interpretations of what Fiesta and I had done were varied, one thing is for sure…it made people think. When all was said and done, I had to dance out my emotion. I went to the closest dance floor and danced until I couldn’t anymore. I was dancing out some sadness I think…it’s not easy to see books burn. Harder than I expected even. At least I saved Jane Eyre.”

But while the burning of the library, and its books, may have been the most dramatic moment, both curators are insistent that it was the conversations that this piece created … the clash of ideas … that was the really interesting and important part.

“I had so many fantastic conversations with people who both loved and hated this idea  – no two people had the same commentary.  EVERYONE had a completely different take on what this meant, why it was good, why it was bad,” said Admiral Fiesta. “So, well before the event, I was completely happy with the piece – the concept was out there, people were talking, asking themselves, myself, and each other hard questions. The most interesting moment of the entire project, to me, was waiting to see if any participant would just clean the library out wholesale, leaving just bare shelves to be burned. Frankly, I was kind of hoping this would happen.”

There will be other chances.  The pair say they plan to keep building the library anew – like a Phoenix of Alexandria – and bringing it to other events.

“One interesting note is how many people had specific books they WANTED burned,” said Sista Turtle Dove.  “Expensive useless textbooks were at the top of that list. In the future I think we have a good foothold for making this Library even better. I want to encourage more participation…and more education. I also think we might add a roving library that comes ‘to people’ instead of remaining stationary at the event. Pick out some of the best books and encourage people to read them. It seemed like when I stood near the library and recommended books to people, they were more likely to take them.”

Admiral Fiesta says that despite the charred pages there are no regrets:  the library was surely responsible for more people engaging with books than would have happened without it.  “We accomplished our goals, namely to get people talking about the importance of books, to eviscerate an unassailable taboo, and to spread out some literature. Yes, it was emotionally manipulative by design, but isn’t that better than it being emotionally manipulative by accident? I can’t stress enough how proud I am of the conversations this project has inspired.

That conversation can continue here.  As long as we’re burning a whole bunch of art at Burning Man anyway, how do you feel about Burning Books?  When the Peruse it or Lose it Library comes to you … and it will … what will you do?

Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man is a bartender gone horribly wrong.  His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

25 Comments on “Burning Down the Library

  • Ryan says:

    I’m going to burn a book tonight in honor of this project.

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  • Chromatest says:

    I almost took one of the books, but it was one that I had already read, in digital form, on my phone. I briefly considered taking them all away, but realized that I was already overloaded with my checked-bags. Alas, it’s a great project!

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  • Gary says:

    Burning books turns out to be a bit of a fire hazard. The breeze we had Burn Night was enough to blow burning book leaves out past our perimeter. No problem though….

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  • ismist says:

    i loved this project, it reminded me of burning my giant dictionary project back in 99 on the playa. no i did not take any book from this project but i did read a few chapters from one book, then put it back.

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  • Audel Snow says:

    I took a book that had been recommended to me by my very best friend and ex-husband and I feel that book came to me just when it needed to and that is how a burn works! I loved the project and would donate some books in the future!

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  • G says:

    The intent behind one’s action is the crux of the matter. The intent of this project was clearly not the same as some other historical book burnings.

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  • FM says:

    I’ve almost finished the copy of The Joy of Sex I got from the library. Next time I think we need more gasoline.

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  • Amber says:

    Thank you for creating such a beautiful, poignant project. Wish I’d met you guys

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  • Mr Mom says:

    I cleaned up the burn scar and there were burned pages where words were still distinguishable. The only downside of the project (according to RJag) were flying paper cinders that could have been a problem with stronger winds. Many thanks for your contribution. Love to you both! Mom

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  • Sista Turtle Dove says:

    It sounds like the best solution to run away burning pages is going to be to wrap any leftover books in some sort of wire before burning the them. In the future we have so many additional fun plans for the library, I want to tell you guys now but I think it will be more fun if we leave it as a surprise! Expect the library to come to Saguaro Man!

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  • Truly says:


    I was ***at*** the AZ decomp, less than 150′ from this *EPIC* endeavor…and I found about it here.

    Clearly, I need to get out more…

    <3 ;) <3

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  • B.Crocker says:

    Surely, it all has partly to do with the content of the books and partly to do with the draw within us wanting to keep our possesion of the books themselves. They are our friends. We have a connection to them. We don’t want them or the authors to be disrespected by thinking their work is lost forever. Even though we know that the information/stories will never, for the most part, be lost. The digital age has been indirectly burning all things paper since it was born. A ‘Books on tape library’ would probably spark the question over and over ‘Why aren’t you guys burning the real thing?’ I doubt a library consisting of nothing but cookbooks would get the same reaction either. Unless you loved cooking of course. A musical library though, filled with vynl records. I’d love to see the reaction to that. I’m sure there would be a different type of outrage all together and possibly none at all if it were mp3’s on flash drives. Ehh. Content is the kicker. Havering a couple volumes of the most book ever read could really get ya into a ton O’ trouble or into a ton O’ coversastions at least. I give any of the books I own away. If you show intrest in it, it’s yours. Or maybe the real question is all in the way in which you feel about fire itself. Are you there to free it or are you there to destroy it?

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  • JV says:

    What a great concept, I wish I had thought of it. So simple yet powerful. Or powerful because it’s so simple. I honestly can’t see how anyone would get upset over it, but then there are always people just dying to get upset.

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  • Adm. Fiesta says:

    Thank you all for your kind words – I’m so inspired by the reaction to this piece, I can’t tell you how thankful I am to have created something that moved so many people.

    There are plans in the works to bring this to other regionals, as well as “franchise” it out – so if you would like to do one at YOUR regional, please do!

    I agree that the LNT could have been much better on this project, and that falls on me and Sista – in the future we have plans for better ensuring pages don’t get loose during the burn, and that the scar is easier to handle and cleaned up more quickly.

    Again, many thanks to everyone who participated, and for all your comments.

    Admiral Fiesta

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  • cult says:


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  • ~e says:

    Physical books are a pain in the ass to own, once you get past a couple thousand.

    Maintenance of a collection is something best left to others – say, a library… but you need to *HAVE* a library, and (most likely) librarians. Well, caveat (no pun intended), you need librarIES. No one library should be holding all the info, all love to Terminus aside.

    But seriously guys, didn’t you check out online the problems of book-burning? (I mean, I coulda easily told you about flaming pages) I think they even showed it in an Indiana Jones film…

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  • dandelion says:

    I really enjoyed the project and the conversations it inspired. I agree that physical books a re a pain in the @ss! As a society we put too much weight on the written word. We need to move back to storytelling, griots, and oral histories. We rely on paper and ink to remember for us, but we already have brains for that!

    I wonder if you could create a larger mesh cover, like a fire pit cover, for the book burning to keep the pages from flying away? Then mesh cover could be reused for subsequent book burning and would be less labor-intensive than wrapping each book in wire.

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  • Lauren Carly says:

    Right on B Crocker. After a book sale to support our library, housed in a used double wide and only open 8 hours a week, we occasionally take the books that won’t sell, hell we can’t even give them away to book fanacitics, to the dump. Just as bad as burning them. People don’t like it conceptually but won’t take the books home with them. I’ve tried. We are in a transition people. So long as by using e- formats we aren’t subjucating ourselves to a small group of people telling us what to read via mass media, we are ok. The hypnosis is about complete anyway. That is why Burningman is so important. It needs to keep a space for a freed mind to express itself seperate from mass advertising/selling/comodification. It is not the message in books; it is the medium. I would argue. Just consider the evolution of the phone!

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  • aileen says:

    Psst… Stephen King’s named isn’t spelled with a “V.”

    Love this idea. I came across the library on the playa and my immediate reaction was: this can’t be serious – they’re not really going to burn books! And yet, I didn’t take a book. I’ll have to think more on my feelings about that.

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  • Sista Turtle Dove says:

    Aileen, that’s exactely what I was hoping people would think about. We really want to expand the library to have “more for everyone” the next time around. I understand people feeling like books are too bulky…but is that just a sort of laziness? Books are too much of a hassel? How lazy have we gotten?

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  • Sunnyside says:

    We did a very similar project, Read or Burn, out at 8:30 and G last year. We threatened flames, but instead of actually burning the leftovers, we set them up during exodus and saw most of the remaining books snapped up by people hopping out of RV’s to grab something to read on the way home.

    Definitely provoked a wide variety of reactions.

    Admiral Fiesta and Sista Turtle Dove, I’d had the thought too of creating a roving library. Collaborate?.

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  • ~e says:

    >We rely on paper and ink to remember for us, but we already have brains for that!

    And brains are particularly bad at memory things, esp. people of today’s society. Most people won’t memorize a damn thing anymore, now that they’ve got digital devices. Quick, without looking, give me 5 telephone numbers of your friends; and one can be of your mom/parent. Good thing you never lose your phone, nor have it taken from you (muggers, cops, whatever). Even if we had people training as bards, particularly skilled at composing verse (easier to not fuck shit up when it has to rhyme) – brains are bad at remembering things, just like witnesses are very bad at observing what actually happens (see any psychology text: Invisible Gorilla)

    The written word is far superior to oral, and is superior to digital as well. Digital rot is everywhere, if you’ve ever talked to someone, or tried to find something specific that you saw at one point (assuming you’ve got enough memory left to remember things from more than 6 months ago). Digital has the potential to supplant the written word, but we’re still pretty far from being effective with it. It’s going to take a lot of work. Historians are already bemoaning the memory hole that the 80s-00s are in the history. Engineers (who deal with old shit) too, since a lot of data went to digital (instead of into blueprints, see DoD requirements in the 80s), and now the media is bad, the formats are unusable, and the programs don’t exist, etc.

    Doesn’t mean that physical formats aren’t a pain in the ass, however.

    re: Roving libraries

    There are a bunch of people already doing that type stuff. The bookmobile, and the Black Rock Library amongst them. There’s also plenty of anarchy libraries running around various cities (Phx has one), which are floating collections – so they’re ‘mobile’ in the longer term, and some are just running around in people’s trunks. And then there’s bookcrossing, freeing books to wander in lots of places.

    And it sounds like Aileen ran into a library on-playa (in 2013?) at Burning Man, not at AzDecomp… perhaps you guys should be tracking those people down :D

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