by Mario Munguia
There was something profoundly shocking about Phil Zimmerman’s book Celsius 233. My initial impression of this book was that it clearly had a potent yet ominous voice that was impactfully reinforced by its craftsmanship and content. This piece was made in response to the destruction of the Mosul Library in Iraq in February of 2015, where Islamic State jihadists collected and burned significant texts and artifacts. The artist undertook extensive research on the history of libricide, or book burning, leading to the creation of this book which displays a barrage of images taken at or inspired by these historic and intolerable events aptly shedding a spotlight on this injustice.
The book can be found in the special collections of our very own Hayden Library. It is the tenth copy of an edition of fifty. There are twenty-eight images of documented book burnings ranging from 213 BCE – 2014 CE, which are presented with a deep red filter heightening the tension and barbarity of the occurrences. All the images were collected online mostly acquired from The National Archive, Library of Congress, and university databases. The images were printed using archival inkjet ink on French Paper and hand bound with a multi-needle coptic stich.
There are multiple loose laser cut tongues in the shape of a flame which serve as a transitional separation in between each image that have the date, location, and perpetrator of each event. I found the laser burning of the text into the tongue insert made an appropriate shadow around the information, a small detail that added to the overall sinister tone of the book. The book also comes in a light grey acid-free phase box, reminiscent of ashes, and a DVD that includes a five-minute video that echoes the tone of the book meant to be played to set up a viewing environment to accompany this piece. The video presents footage of Nazi propaganda applied with the same deep red filter as the pages in the book. These compositional choices were carefully considered in enforcing the entire feel of the piece.
Something that really stood out to me along studying the abundant imagery was the scale, participation, and reasoning for these events. Some examples include the destruction of the Library at Alexandria, small churches burning Harry Potter books, catholic students gathering to burn comic books, a group of Chilean soldiers carrying out orders to burn Marxist books, large masses gathering almost ceremoniously in the heat of revolution, Nazis in Nuremburg. These examples are excellent cases that reflect the worst horrors of sociology as I was left aghast at the level of eradication these groups rallied around. Collectively it made it feel like differing global communities have been, and continue to be at war while some of the most pressing casualties are the instruments that build up human culture, knowledge, history, and imagination
The artist graciously accepted a few questions that came to mind in my process of researching the book. However instead of re-writing my inquiries to fit this format and paraphrasing his answers I will include the following copy of our exchange:
MM: Can you shed some light on your selection process that came out of your research on the burnings you included in the book? Was there anything of interest or something you found surprising that did not make it into the final version?
PZ: I wasn’t all that selective, since I could not find enough good images. I did do quite a lot of research and I included a great deal (most) of the instances of images of book-burning or censorship that I found. I actually wish I could have found more images. I did find more instances of book-burning than images, which was a bit of a problem.
MM: Do you have a translation of the audio excerpt from Triumph of the Will included in the visual reading environment DVD and is there significance from that excerpt to the physical book?
PZ: No, I have no literal translation, it is a Nazi chant or “hymn”. It sounded like a Nazi chant to me, and strangely I didn’t care about an exact translation of the lyrics since to me it sounded like a Nazi chant and that was all I was after. I suppose it might have been interesting to have the lyrics translated.
MM: Are you interested in having the message of the book come across to the audience in a certain way, such as a warning, raising awareness, or allowing the viewer to come to their own conclusion?
PZ: People have always found ways of censoring information (in this case books) that do not conform to their own personal views on religion, morality or political views. This goes way, way, back and I do not see this as only a contemporary problem but more of a problem that goes back millennia. So yes, I merely wanted to raise awareness of the on-going continuum, form the Library at Alexandria to the burning of books by the Islamic State.
MM: In my opinion the visual and narrative tone of the book and the experience frames the act of libricide as an obvious act of ignorant violence and evil destruction. However, the variety of historical examples presented in the book point to the act being spurred on in most cases as a rejection of nonshared beliefs. Can you offer some comments on this discourse? Can the situation be approached objectively with any positive response, or should we always declare this act of destroying the instruments of history, knowledge, and culture as tasteless?
PZ: I would put it more strongly that “tasteless”. There is an old saying that I think applies: “History belongs to the Victors.” I think a lot of book-burning follows that dictum. If they erase facts they will own an alternate history that conforms to their views. Trump is already doing that with large sections of the EPA and other websites scrubbed of information that doesn’t conform to their views. So, it is not just books.
MM: There is a very appropriate reference to Fahrenheit 451 in the title of your book followed by an even more appropriate Heine quote: “Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned too.” Judging from a place in between probable and speculative theory I would like to ask if you see anything in our contemporary world or within this book burning history that would suggest a complete eradication of books perhaps like the one suggested in Fahrenheit 451, and if not by destructive means then by technological overhaul. What role might libraries play in protecting physical books, archives, collections, etc. if there was a mandate one day that sought to convert all this information into a digital format.
PZ: A good question. We are in a weird place in history where physical books are seemingly diminished and most young people are non-readers. I see this as a broader question though. Although I am a lover of physical ink-on-paper books and reading, I see many of the same issues applying to digital media. As I mentioned, the Trump administration has removed many sections of government websites that mention climate change and other non-Trumpian political views.
In conclusion I felt there was a lot to grasp in this book Zimmerman put forth, and it desperately needs to generate a discussion between the many different social structures contained within the world. Seeing a collection of these events as a brief history triggered me into thinking about it less as a misguided matter of censorship and more as a silent crisis. It is unfortunate, and maybe only speaking for myself, that people see happenings like this, but quickly forget about them. With so much going on every day in the news and with the idea of having the world at our fingertips the most vital tangible objects that give our lives meaning and reinforce the cultures of the world are often overlooked. Sadly, I am forced to ponder whether anyone could ever control or suppress matters such as this, but I propose that if these conflicts based on differing opinions continually arise the tragedies will resume. I commend the artist’s effort of giving this subject the much-needed attention it deserves in the poetic format of a book. I really enjoyed spending my time with Celsius 233, and it certainly left an impression on me as I hope it will for all who come to interact with it.
-Mario Munguia Jr.