An interesting discussion about burning books came up in the discussion thread on my recent post reviewing Chesterton's biography of Thomas Aquinas. Chesterton concludes the biography with a scene, meant to chill the reader's blood, of Martin Luther ordering the books of Thomas Aquinas burned. I agreed that it was "very wicked" to burn books, and in saying that, I was just repeating the schoolbook commonsense, or orthodoxy, of liberal-democratic late-20th-century America. Hitler's book burnings are one of the signposts of the evil of that regime in popular mythology; book burning has been tacitly anathematized, and those anathemas are part of the identity of every civic-minded American.
But is burning books really wrong, and if so, why? Burning books is not in the list of common crimes alongside murder, theft, rape, and assault. If it were discovered that a person was trying to buy up every available copy of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird, and burn it, it wouldn't, as far as I know, be grounds for prosecuting him. Of course, such an endeavor would have no hope of success: at most, it would succeed in pushing up the price of the book which would just induce more printing, and in any case it would be against the policy of libraries to surrender their copies for any money. If one really hopes to extinguish the existence of a certain text, then, it's probably necessary to engage in a good deal of coercion and theft/confiscation, and indeed of violence against individuals who try to reproduce the texts to replace the copies that are destroyed. That might be a reason that book burning is wicked, or at least symptomatic of wickedness: anyone who burns books with the idea of destroying their contents probably must engage in coercion, theft, violence, etc., to achieve his ends.
Would it be wrong to destroy a text through pure moral suasion? Suppose a nonprofit organization were to be founded, dedicated to the proposition that Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto had done so much evil in the world that it ought to be expunged from human memory forever, but that it was wrong (perhaps even Marxist) to seize anyone's property, so the nonprofit would restrict its efforts to moral suasion, encouraging individuals to burn their personal copies of the iniquitous book, while simultaneously opposing any government policy that would suppress the book by force. In this case, I think the nonprofit's objective would be wrong, but they would be partly redeemed by the quixotic innocence of their methods (and non-threatening because of the near-certainty of their failure). Or let us return to the case suggested above: a wealthy individual tries to buy up every copy of The Communist Manifesto and burn it. Here I think we need to know if the wealthy individual seeks this end openly or covertly. If covertly, I think he is in the wrong (though probably not legally culpable) because those who part with their copies of the book are a bit deceived: they think they will be able to buy another copy later, and don't realize they are giving up access to the text forever. If openly, the wealthy individual's action resembles that of the nonprofit, with a small difference: since he is using money rather than moral suasion, he may be corrupting people into going against their own consciences to deprive posterity of a historic text for their own short-term gain. In any of these cases, one of the losers (in the unlikely event that the attempt succeeds) is posterity; another, perhaps, is the contemporary non-Communist Manifesto-owning public, who will have their choices diminished and live in an impoverished discourse environment.
But am I assuming that the existence of the text is beneficial? Not exactly. Some regard it as a benefit, others as a nuisance, others are indifferent. Is it meaningful to say that some book's harms outweigh its benefits, in the face of these differing preferences? If it is meaningful, who is qualified to judge? I certainly know what answer I want to give, indeed to insist on and demand from others: No one. But how do you prove that? Yet that may be a secondary point, because I'm not arguing chiefly from a utilitarian point of view. My intuition is that burning books is wrong even if it yields net benefits, or rather that a utilitarian calculus is never feasible but our anti-book-burning scruples should be independent of our estimates of net costs and benefits.