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Home > Culture and Society

The Beltane book burning

11 May 2005

As sybaritic neopagans the world over got naked and frolicsome to celebrate Beltane on Sunday, a hundred people or so in Wigtown in South West Scotland got together for a good old-fashioned book-burning.

Aaaaaah, book burning. If you really want to outrage people these days, but you haven't got it in you to fiddle wiv da kids, we sincerely recommend that get hold of a big bunch of books and set fire to them. Liberals hate that. Drives them potty. And although to some that may be reason enough to do it, it really isn't. There has to be more to it than that. So, curious to know if a pestilence of Nazis had broken out on Wigtown, we spoke to Shaun Bythell, the organiser of the book burning and owner of Scotland's largest second-hand bookshop, which incidentally, snappily enough, is called The Bookshop.

We asked him how it went. 'The book burning went very well,' he told us. 'We had a barbeque and some drinks and the pyre was quite captivating to watch.' He sent us a picture.

Very nice. But why on earth would a perfectly respectable bookseller start burning his own books? Well, you can breathe easy: it's nothing to do with Nazis. It's actually to do with the age-old problem of where books go when they die. We're talking here about 'second-hand books which have reached the end of their life and have absolutely no chance of ever selling again, largely due to condition.'

And where they go in South West Scotland is into the ground. They are dumped in their thousands in landfill sites. Bythell isn't keen on this solution. 'My argument for this event was based on the fact that if the alternative fate of the books was to rot in a hole in the ground, why not do something more interesting and use them to make a fire sculpture as a publicity stunt to get people talking about the problem?'

But still, burning them just seems so very wrong. Couldn't he just have given them away? Bythell responds, not unreasonably, 'Who would want a Desmond Bagley paperback with no front cover and the last 30 pages missing?' The rest of the burned books were equally undesirable - lots of repealed statutes, 'irrelevant legal texts' and Readers' Digests, which these days are even spurned by doctors' waiting rooms. 'The reason that we didn't give these books away is that nobody would take them - we've tried putting a box of books on a bench in front of the shop with a 'free books' sign and at the end of the day they are all still
there. Also the quantities we are talking about are enormous...

Of course there are alternatives to burning books, but one of the aims of this exercise is to lobby our politicians into setting up a recycling unit here in the town, and several dealers have been doing this for some time without success, so I thought it was time for drastic action.'

Unsurprisingly, this drastic action has proved highly controversial. Joyce Watson, who runs another Wigtown bookshop told the Sunday Herald, 'It's the symbolism that bothers me. I just don't feel happy about it. I'm seriously uncomfortable about the public burning of books because of the message it sends out.' Bythell however, pooh-poohs the whole Nazi-association thing. 'A number of people have a knee-jerk reaction which is to say "the Nazis burned books" and argue that this makes book burning a taboo - they did so for completely different reasons and there are absolutely no similarities between what we have done and what they did. You might just as well say "the Nazi's made the trains run on time" and argue from that standpoint that we should have a protest every time a train arrives on time.'

Heh! A somewhat spurious argument there, perhaps, but we do so admire a man with fire in his belly. Oh, hold on, he's not finished. 'Anyone who is incapable of drawing the distinction between a tyrannical regime or fanatical maniac burning books to suppress the contents or oppress a minority or ideology, and a bunch of people who have taken a waste product (albeit books) to create a work of art, have a party, and promote an environmental solution to a problem is probably the sort of person who falls into the former category.'

Oof! Take that, Joyce Watson. There's little doubt that the Beltane Book Burning has been a great success in terms of the publicity it has gained for 'Scotland's National Book Town'. Knowing that 'the media engages far more enthusiastically with a controversial story which polarises opinion than one of small rural town which is enjoying economic regeneration', Shaun Bythell has hopefully created enough of a stir to prompt Wigtown big nobs to set up a decent recycling service and make the world a slightly less depressing place. We sincerely hope so. Otherwise he might do it again.

Poor books.

Visit Wigtown

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