A Modern Bookburning

By Daryl Lease leasfinn@fls.infi.net

I'M NOT MUCH on etiquette.

I’m forever confusing my salad fork with whatever that other fork is called.

I slurp my soup.

And nine times out of 10, I get caught using a piece of silverware or fancy side plate that rightfully belongs to someone else at the table.

But when it comes to certain social gatherings, I’m a real stickler for eti- quette.

Like book burnings, for instance.

Last month, it pained me to see a group of socially inept students at Hollins College in Southwestern Virginia mishandle a book burning they’d planned to hold.

The event, held by a group known as the Women’s Collective, was billed as an "empowerment" bonfire.

"We encourage everyone to bring articles, books, advertisements, and other items that they find degrading to women," said a flier distributed by the group.

"These things will be thrown into the fire as a symbol of our fight against violence and oppression."

As you might expect, some professors and students tried to douse these plans.

They said the bonfire called to mind images of Nazis in the 1930s and of dimwitted moral crusaders who gather in this country every now and then to burn books containing ideas they don’t like.

Officials in the Hollins College admin- istration spoke out against the rally, too. They issued a statement acknowledging that the students have a First Amendment right to hold such a rally and burn books. College officials said they also understood that the students thought of the bonfire as an act of personal empowerment.

"However," the statement read, "the Hollins administration rejects the act of burning books because it symbolizes the destruction and suppression of ideas."

The students said that’s not what they wanted to do at all.

It was all a big misunderstanding, they claimed.

Jess Groulx, a student serving as co- chairwoman of the event, told The Roanoke Times newspaper that she could see why people might be upset by the wording of the flier.

The uproar might have been avoided, she said, if the word "book" had been omitted.

It was nothing more than a faux pas, you see.

A tiny little breach of etiquette.

As it turned out, no one brought a book to the rally, after all.

About 50 students participated in the bonfire Tuesday night.

They chucked other forms of written material into the fire.

A photo of the Pope. Mademoiselle magazine. A Victoria Secret’s catalog. Bible stories containing "negative" portrayals of women. Letters from ex-boyfriends. Cosmopolitan magazine ads. A flier announcing a campus speech by professional anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly.

All went up in flames.

The event was indeed empowering, according to some of the participants.

"It’s a symbolic, liberating release for me," said the young woman who burned the Bible stories. "People use symbolism to heal in different ways."

Afterward, some critics of the event said it really wasn’t as scary as they had expected.

They said it was just a bunch of people standing around a fire tossing things in that they didn’t like.

Apparently, a person can get used to it after a while.

Not everyone was consoled, of course.

I, for one, keep thinking of a haunting remark made by a student prior to the bonfire.

This student said she thinks it’s more productive for people to debate--rather than suppress or burn--ideas they don’t like.

"If I burn someone else’s book, their idea," she asked, "what’s to keep them from burning my words, my book?"

I know, I know. You’re probably thinking the same thing I am.

How rude.

Some people just don’t know how to act civilized at a book burning.

Daryl Lease is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Va. An archive of his columns is available at http://www.flstarweb.com/columns/lease/archive.htm.