What's the best way to set fire to a book?

Answers to your questions about the news.
Sept. 8 2010 5:16 PM

Burn Before Reading

What's the best way to set fire to a book?

Book burning. Click image to expand.
Open books burn more easily than closed ones.

The leader of a small, nondenominational Christian congregation in Gainesville, Fla., plans to host the first "International Burn a Quran" day this Saturday. Despite criticism from religious and political leaders around the world, the evangelical minister says he will go forward with the event, during which multiple holy texts will be set ablaze. If you wanted to engage in a ritual of gross religious intolerance, what would be the best way to burn a book?

Open it up. It's extremely challenging to ignite a closed book, even with repeated applications of lighter fluid. You may char the edges, but the flame that results will never grow large enough to consume an entire volume. For any chance at a sustained burn, it's necessary to open the offending book and fan out the pages as much as possible, so as to promote the circulation of air and heat exchange. The most efficient method would be to curl the pages in half lengthwise and tuck the outer edges into the binding and then to light the pages from the top or bottom and wait for the fire to spread.


If you're looking to burn a large pile of books in a headline-grabbing conflagration, you probably won't have time to fan out the pages of each one. But someone who wanted to burn a lot of books could just treat them like firewood. From a combustion perspective, a closed book behaves just like a log. They're both dense collections of cellulose.

Piling books in a loose configuration permits air to circulate and helps to sustain the blaze, so long as there isn't too much space between them.

To ignite a stack like this, you'd need to place a bunch of tinder—perhaps some ripped-out and crinkled pages—at the base of the heap and light it first. (Alternatively, you could get a roaring fire going using other fuel and just throw books on top of it.) Covers are typically made of wood-based materials as well. Leather-bound books may take a few extra seconds to ignite, but they won't change the temperature or burn time for the bonfire.

Why can you burn 100 closed books, but not one by itself? To sustain a fire, you have to get the outside of the book up to ignition temperature and keep it there. But two things happen when you apply flame to a book. First, heat is shunted into the middle of the volume, which prevents the outside from reaching ignition temperature. (The exact temperature required varies based on composition and conditions, Ray Bradbury's figure of 451 degrees Fahrenheit notwithstanding.) Second, a layer of char develops on the book cover, which serves to raise the ignition temperature. So, if you want to keep your books burning, you have to apply continuous heat to the surface by surrounding them with other burning books.  That's why it's so hard to burn a single log in your fireplace—without new heat coming in from adjacent burning wood, the energy dissipates and the fire dies.

However you burn books, you might want to stand upwind of the bonfire. Most book paper is bleached using chlorine, and burning it releases dioxins, which can cause skin lesions, liver damage, reproductive abnormalities, and cancer. You won't be affected by one International Burn a Quran Day, but make a habit of it and you're taking a chance.

Got a question about today's news? Ask the Explainer.

Like  Slate  and the Explainer  on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.



The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers


Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.


The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
Gentleman Scholar
Oct. 22 2014 5:54 PM May I Offer to Sharpen My Friends’ Knives? Or would that be rude?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Wild Things
Oct. 22 2014 2:42 PM Orcas, Via Drone, for the First Time Ever
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.