Burning Books

Nick Holdstock

I began burning books during my third year in China. The first book I burned was called A Swedish Gospel Singer. On the cover there was a drawing of a blonde girl wearing a crucifix with her mouth wide open and musical notes floating out of it. Inside was a story, written in simple English, about a Swedish girl who loved to sing. One day, passing a church, she heard a wonderful sound. When she went in, the congregation welcomed her and asked her to join their gospel choir. Through these songs she learned about Jesus, his compassion, his sacrifice, the love he feels for all.

I put the book in a tin bucket on my kitchen floor. I added some pages from the Xinjiang Daily and the Yili Evening News, and carried the bucket out onto my fourth-floor balcony. From there I could see into the neighbours’ apartments: people were cooking or watching TV. I was worried that they might think my flat was on fire and come to investigate, but I hoped my small blaze wouldn’t bother them. From the balcony I could also see a line of snow-topped mountains, their peaks fading from white to grey to blue in the dusk. Only when they were lost in the dark did I strike a match. The book’s cover didn’t catch light, so I struck another match and held it till the flame took. It was almost a minute before the fire ate through to the pages. I had yet to learn that a book burns better without its cover, and better still if its pages are torn up.

After this I burned Heroes of the Faith, The Greatest Miracle in the World, then Our Lord, Our Lamb. Over the course of a week I burned about 70 books. I liked watching the flames. I had had the books in my flat for a long time without knowing how to get rid of them. I couldn’t just throw them away: someone was certain to see me and think the books were mine. In the end, burning them seemed the only solution.

The books were part of a small library in the college where I taught. The library was for students learning English, and was usually kept locked. Apart from me, the only person who had a key was a teacher called Colin, who had provided most of the books. He was a short man with glasses and a smile he used too often. He, like the other ten foreigners in town, was a practising Christian. As I saw it, my secret reason for being in this remote Chinese town was entirely valid – I was investigating a riot that had happened there several years earlier – whereas their hidden reason was that they were missionaries, for all their claims to be merely studying or teaching. Reading through my students’ English diaries I had found this entry:

Today Colin invited eight of us to go to his house. We have already go to Colin’s house several times. Firstly Colin prepare some delicious food for us like coffee, biscuit, pastry. Secondly Colin shown us a film about Jesus. And he explain something that happened at that time so we can understand the film. After I saw that film, I knew God loves people. Today we have a good time!

Not only was this an abuse by my colleague of his position as a teacher, but I felt he was trying to take advantage of the despair that unemployment, poverty, drug use, Aids and religious repression had brought in their train.

The history of book-burning is virtually coterminous with that of books themselves. (In 213 BC, the first Qin emperor ordered the destruction of Confucian books, excepting those about medicine, agriculture and ‘divination by the tortoise’.) Whether people’s reasons are cultural, religious or political, what most often unites them as book-burners is the belief that they are protecting others: I believ-ed I was protecting my students. I didn’t want them to read those books, not because I didn’t want them to become Christians, but because it would have been dangerous for them to be found with the books or seen with missionaries. If the police realised my colleagues were missionaries they would, at worst, be deported; my students would be expelled and have a mark on their records that could ruin their lives. The fact that the loss of the books would not stop the missionaries didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to do something to get back at them. Though the books’ disappearance was soon noticed, Colin either didn’t suspect me, or pretended that he thought the students had just forgotten to return them. After a few weeks, it took me a second to remember why my bucket was warped and blackened by smoke.

It was around this time that I began to write letters that I never sent. I wrote to each of the missionaries, listing their ‘crimes’, starting with Colin.

I know what you are up to, and to pretend that you are not engaged in missionary activities is an insult to my intelligence and a sure sign of your inflated sense of your own abilities. What is it I object to? The Christian faith? Not per se. It’s more the arrogance of coming into another culture, one with its own existing traditions, imagining that you have so much to teach instead of learn, and furthermore, the deceit, getting people when they’re down, giving them false hope, taking spiritual advantage of them.

  Don’t imagine for one moment that I believe a single word you say about anything. You have already demonstrated a willingness to deceive and lie when your fragile sense of worth is threatened. When you tried to arrange the class when I was at Abdurim’s wedding; when you said you had never seen those books before; when you claimed to be good friends with the police: all of these are symptomatic of your inability to accept that many people simply do not like you and that many of us are more capable/likeable/secure than you.

I’d spent two years living in an atmosphere of paranoia and distrust. The police interrogated my friends; my telephone was bugged; I had constantly to account for my whereabouts. This was part of a general programme of surveillance (the riot five years earlier had led to the imposition of martial law), but it was also the case that the authorities’ suspicions matched my own. They were watching me in the same way I was watching the other foreigners (perhaps they thought I was a missionary).

Eventually I made myself so sick with loathing that I had to return to Britain. I packed my things, said goodbye to my students, and went to inform on the missionaries. The grey walls of the police station were covered with the large garish photos one finds in restaurants all across China: fields of tulips, summer meadows, waterfalls. I told the police that the missionaries were trying to convert people, both in the college and in the town. They thanked me and said they were aware of their activities; all they were really lacking was proof. I asked what that might entail. ‘Leaflets and magazines,’ I was told. ‘And if they’ve been giving out books.’ I didn’t say much in reply.

A few years later, when I read my diaries from the time, I realised how deranged I had been. In some ways it was fortunate that I’d burned the books: the police could have used them as a pretext for other searches or arrests. The fact that I was willing to co-operate with them disturbs me more than the burning. I could instead have confronted the missionaries, told them to leave my students alone. This would have been the braver option, but I knew they wouldn’t listen. The only time I raised the subject with Colin – shortly after reading the student’s diary entry – he shrugged and said she was mistaken. When I refused to drop the issue, he told me that spreading such rumours could be dangerous. He said he had known of a young teacher in another college who’d made similar accusations and found himself being arrested and deported for political subversion.