The Burden of Knowledge

Alfredo Fernandez


HAVANA TIMES — For some time now, I’ve found myself longing for the book-burning inquisitors of old to come back. Yes, I’m serious: I’ve caught myself fondly remembering those who, during medieval times and early modernity, made huge pyres of “dangerous” volumes.

Those who ordered such burnings believed they were freeing humanity from the “burden of knowledge”. This way, they placed nearly all of Renaissance Europe under the yoke of a predictable and naïve faith. The more ignorant Church goers were, the more submissive to the Church they remained.

To read the works of John Locke in Spain, for instance, one had to have permission from the Pope. Priests, who had carried culture in their arms – and also trampled it – for centuries, came to control all access to knowledge, that treasure which ought to be enjoyed by all and never made the exclusive property of some.

Modernity came along and the clergy, less powerful than in medieval times, fruitlessly tried to administer the use of knowledge at its convenience (what the Cuban government does today to deny the people free access to the Internet).

In the short span of three centuries, books made knowledge advance several times more than all previous forms of communication put together. Ultimately, books prevailed over the Church, and it wasn’t until the arrival of fascism in Europe in the 1930s that book burnings made their re-appearance. Only an ideology as obtuse as fascism could take issue with knowledge as such.

I am not a Catholic or a fascist and I do not admire the Cuban regime, but I miss the inquisitors who burned books. If there were book-burnings in early modernity, this was because there were also readers at the time. Today, we have no inquisitors, but we also have no readers. I miss the readers.

Has technological development deprived us of the knowledge to be found in books? I am speaking of knowledge, not of “know-how”, which aren’t the same thing. What’s telling, for me, is that we no longer need inquisitors to keep people from reading.

With the ironic tone of someone who knows the answer to something in advance, I asked my students what books they were currently reading. One out of nearly eighty said they had “bought a novel and had the intention of reading it.” The rest weren’t reading anything at all. What’s more, they hadn’t read a novel, essay or book of poetry in the recent past either. There were many excuses: “I don’t have the time,” “books are very expensive,” or “I don’t have the habit of reading.”

Today, readers are something of a rara avis, people who are often considered strange or socially inept.

Never before has humanity had as few readers as it does today. The Church, fascists and anyone who placed any kind of restriction on knowledge would never have imagined a time like ours, where reality shows, soap operas, the worst kind of Hollywood cinema, videogames and bad television have replaced the Church and fascism, taking over human entertainment completely.

It would be unthinkable, today, to entertain oneself getting to know the eccentricities of the Buendias, or to delight in exploring the Mexican town of Comala, whose inhabitants are all dead, let alone change our conception of repression and power reading Michel Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish.”

I can only hope our taste for technology today will lead to a renewed interest in reading, which is perhaps the only way to arrive at individual thought, the only means of freeing ourselves from the slavery of the opinion of those in power to which we are subjected.

I apologize for this confession, but, if book-burners returned, I would almost be happy. Their return would mean that people are reading, that they are searching for knowledge, that new forms of knowledge can be accessed. They, the book-burners, wouldn’t be much of a problem, for, ultimately, people always find a way of getting their hands on the book they want. If anyone has any doubts about that, they need only ask Cuban readers.