By Thomas Filbin
Burning the Books sometimes turns into a disturbing chronicle of mankind’s elemental hostility to learning: barbarians often first targeted libraries and archives.
Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden. Belknap/Harvard, 308pp. $29.95.
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If you have ever stood outside Harvard’s Widener Library or lingered in the courtyard entrance to Oxford’s Bodleian Library, you have the feeling that these buildings are palpably emanating knowledge into the atmosphere. For those who love books, libraries are sacred places: spaces where speech is hushed, and whose caretakers are priests who celebrate the sacrament of imbibing knowledge without the need for holy water and incense.
Richard Ovenden, the director of the Bodleian Library, has written a superb book that details the antithesis of literary reverence: it is a history of destruction, not by accident, but by acts of erasure. The villains in the long history of malice toward knowledge include authoritarian governments, dogmatic religions, and a blind know-nothingness that tramples on what it does not understand. Burning the Books explores the perennial disease of anti-intellectualism by way of a series of compelling but inevitably disturbing vignettes.
First, we are shown how collections were formed via the clay tablets of the Mesopotamians and the papyrus of the Egyptians. Holy scrolls and epic poems were inevitably safeguarded, but libraries also served as archives. Civic and commercial record-keeping existed amply in the centuries BCE. Of course, preservation invited destruction. Ashurbanipal’s great library at Nineveh was sacked and burnt after a war but, millennia later, clay tablets were unearthed which included the Epic of Gilgamesh. The destruction of the library at Alexandria is often blamed on the Muslim occupation of Egypt in 642 CE by the Caliph Omar. But that notion is debunked by Ovenden, who notes that Caesar himself recorded that the library was damaged as a consequence of his war with Pompey in 48-47 BCE. Historian Edward Gibbon argued that Alexandra’s library was the victim of an extended process of decay. Ovenden concludes that “the institution of the library disappeared more gradually both through organizational neglect and through the gradual obsolescence of the papyrus scrolls themselves.”
The story moves forward to the medieval era, when books had become rare. Volumes were copied by monks and bound up to be kept privately or in monasteries.This meant that even the great libraries of the ancient European universities took centuries to build. A scholar who owned a hundred books, an above average amount at the time, was considered to have a “library.” Ovenden tells the story of Glastonbury in the west of England, where great manuscripts, such as Geoffrey of Monmouth’s history, were maintained. Later, Henry VIII realized the crucial political and cultural value of books when he set about to pillage the wealth of the Catholic church in his quest to de-Romanize the English church and put it under his control. The king chose a scholar to tour the realm and conduct an inventory of all the literary treasures held by the church. Ovenden appreciates the drama of the quest: “Traveling alone and on horseback, John Leland cut a striking solitary shape against the backdrop of the turbulent Tudor period, and his journey was to give us the last possible glimpse of the contents of the monastic libraries before they were destroyed in the name of the Reformation.”
Ovenden points out that the incessant Catholic-Protestant warfare of the 16th century led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of books. Each side sought to expunge the heresies of the other. Outright theft and looting were also Reformation sports; one of the collections of the Bodleian was stolen as war booty from the bishop of Faro’s palace during the English-Spanish wars at the time of Francis Drake.
The volume explores other heinous crimes against books: the British burning of the Library of Congress in 1813; the burning of the monumental library at the University of Louvain by the Germans in 1914 and again in 1940, the latter following a vast American philanthropic effort to rebuild the building and restock its holdings; and the destruction of Bosnian libraries during the war with Serbia. A happy exception: a heroic tale of the rescue of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a Sephardic book dating from 1350 that had already escaped numerous close calls over six centuries. A tragic reminder of the damage of social upheavals: the loss of treasures and antiquities in Iraq during the First Gulf War. The destruction of much of Europe’s cultural patrimony during the Second World War is well covered, including the efforts of Jews to save books, scrolls, and writings by smuggling them out to safe countries.
The digital age is also thoughtfully examined here, with particular attention to undercutting the belief that an absence of paper guarantees the end of the destruction of knowledge. Electronic corruption and obliteration has and will happen. Ovenden examines a 2018 disaster in Maine, a catastrophic loss of public documents that occurred over the course of two governorships. There have been numerous damaging cyber-attacks on website archives, technology’s equivalent of the thundering horde of Visigoths who sacked Rome in 410. The serious issues raised by the collaborative setup of Wikipedia are covered; readers’ ability to change entries creates a crucial need for “Wiki” guardians to constantly monitor what is available. The intimidating immensity of this brave new world is illustrated by the Internet Archive. The project’s intent is to create universal access to all human knowledge — it is already drawing on more than 441 billion websites.
Ovenden concludes with a cri de coeur, a warning that it has become even harder in the computer age to ensure the survival and integrity of libraries and archives. In that sense, Burning the Books is not only a work of history, but a clarion call for those who love books and obsess over their survival, a plea for their engagement in the campaign to save recorded knowledge, not merely in order to preserve the past, but to shape a healthy future. Ovenden sagely concludes: “Libraries and archives take the long view of civilization in a world that currently takes the short-term view. We ignore their importance at our peril.”
Thomas Filbin is a freelance critic whose work has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, the Boston Sunday Globe, and the Hudson Review.