Up in Smoke
Was it a pleasure to burn? The Boy wasn’t so sure.
All the people around him certainly seemed to think so. Cheering, whooping, cavorting around and tossing fresh books onto the fire. Every so often someone would come running up with another wheelbarrow of offensive material which would be fed into the flames and another bout of uproarious applause would ripple through the crowd.
These books were all bad. Apparently. The exact nature of the badness varied from book to book, though there were rarely any specifics apart from the occasional and particularly heinous example. Most were merely thrown in with the more notable ones and no-one gave it much thought.
The Boy recognized the cover of one of the books just starting to catch light. He hadn’t read any of it, of course. No-one had read a word of any of them, not even the Man in Charge, and he’d been the one to say they were fit only for burning in the first place. Apparently he didn’t need to read them, he said, and he also said that while he didn’t need to, all of them just shouldn’t, as it would be bad for them. He didn’t go into much more detail than that. As the cover blackened and little wisps of burning paper started fluttering up from the pages to join the others swirling above the fire, the Boy couldn’t help but think that wasn’t the best way of doing things.
He was loathe to question the system of course – and had had the lesson that he should not question the system quite literally beaten into him from quite an early age, albeit without much explanation as to why – but it did seem a little odd to his brain. Generally he shrugged this off as a result of his youth. He, being young, lacked the experience and worldly wisdom to fully grasp the reasoning behind all of this, he told himself. But with the fire in front of him and everyone else having such a good time feeding books to it, he found himself unable to accept the usual non-committal answers.
Surely their position was not so tenuous that the mere existence of viewpoints not totally aligned with theirs should be considered a threat? Logically – and the Boy was aware of how looked-down upon logic was around his parts – wouldn’t it be better to refute the contents rather than destroy them outright? That didn’t seem to cast their position in that good of a light, he thought. But what did he know? Not much, as those older than him never tired of repeating.
The Man in Charge was stood off to one side. Unlike everyone else he didn’t seem particularly happy about things, or at least didn’t look happy. His arms were folded across his chest and his face was downturned, hidden in shadow even through the glare of the fire. The Boy wondered what it was the Man in Charge got out of all of this. He never looked like he enjoyed himself and he spent all the time not overseeing the burnings compiling lists of what needed to burn next. That couldn’t be any way to live.
Sometimes, the Boy wondered what it must be like to focus on the more pleasant things. To think about what you liked and what should be celebrated. They did some of that, too, but only ever in a negative context. What they liked being better than what it was everyone else liked, and so on. Nothing could stand on its own. Everything had to be better than something else or be destroyed and no longer exist as a threat. No wonder the Man in Charge looked so tired all the time.
A book was pressed into the Boy’s hands which snapped him out of his pondering. Looking up into the fire-lit, grinning face of his mother he clutched it tightly to his chest, stepped forward from the circle around the pyre and tossed it in. He didn’t even look at the cover. He didn’t think it would have made him feel any better if he had.