Book-Burning and Other Bibliocausts

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The New York Sun

The clay tablets of the Babylonians seem clumsy and strangely vulnerable. They weren’t gathered in books or protected by bindings; they crumbled easily. And yet, they had one great advantage over all our media, from parchment to CDs: When baked by the sun or fired in kilns, clay tablets become virtually indestructible. Neither fire nor water nor hungry worms can wreck them. If they break, the shards can be pieced together again. As a result, thousands of ancient records incised in clay, from bills of lading to personal letters to such literary masterpieces as the “Epic of Gilgamesh,” survive to this day.

By contrast, of the 120 works attributed to Sophocles only seven complete plays and a handful of fragments are extant. Sappho wrote nine volumes of verse but only two whole poems of hers survive. And in fact, we ourselves aren’t much better off than the Greeks. Books printed in the 19th century on acid paper crumble in our hands as we read them. Nor do we even know for sure what the actual life span of digitized records will be. To make matters worse, as Fernando Báez makes plain in “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq” (Atlas, 367 pages, $25), translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam, the book has always been doubly inflammable. Its contents inflame hostile readers while its physical format is temptingly combustible.

When conquerors put vanquished peoples to the sword they destroy their books too. The Mongols under Hulagu sacked Baghdad in 1258 and devastated its centuries-old libraries; the Christian missionaries who accompanied the conquistadors made bonfires of the Aztec and Mayan codices. And as recently as August 1992, Ratko Mladic, the Serbian commander, ordered incendiary shells deployed for three days to destroy the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo. In a perverse way, such murderous vandals paid tribute to the value of the book: They understood, however dimly, that conquest can’t be complete until the entire written past of the conquered has been razed to the ground.

Mr. Báez is the director of the National Library of Venezuela, and so this melancholy history of destruction is close to his heart. His title makes ironic allusion to Jorge Luis Borges’s “Universal History of Infamy.” This is all the more fitting since Borges himself not only served as director of the National Library of Argentina but in one of his most famous fictions conjured up the shadowy “Library of Babel,” a fabulous repository “whose extent is infinite.” Unlike Borges, who delighted in inventing titles which don’t exist (but should), Mr. Báez describes books and whole libraries that fell prey not only to fire and flood but to sheer human malevolence. He is an eloquent chronicler of such “bibliocausts.”

Whether he is describing the systematic destruction of books carried out by the Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huang in 213 B.C.E. — only works on agriculture, medicine, and divination were spared — or the conflagration which incinerated the famed library of Alexandria, probably at the hands of a zealous Christian mob, in the fourth century C.E., Mr. Báez sets each act of destruction in its historical context. And he provides an excellent, if harrowing, array of illustrations. Lurid photographs of Nazi book-burning are set against crude images of those earlier pyres on which the writings of outcast and “heretical” groups, such as the Albigensians in medieval France, were consumed.

Unfortunately, for all Mr. Báez’s impassioned eloquence, this is an uneven book, and several chapters are marred by glaring errors. In the chapter on libraries in the Islamic world, for example, dates are given incorrectly, names are mangled beyond recognition, and historical events are misrepresented. Thus, the great wave of conquests that took early Muslim armies from the Arabian Peninsula to Spain in the West and India in the East within a century did not begin in 661 with the Umayyad dynasty — which Mr. Báez persists in calling the “Ommiads” — but was launched 30 years earlier; the great ninth-century translator from Greek into Arabic was Hunayn ibn Ishaq, not “Humayun Ibn Ishaq,” and so forth. These are small mistakes but there are too many of them. Such breezy carelessness is especially disturbing in a book that laments the misuse of books.

To his credit, Mr. Báez is no mere academic chronicler of what he calls, somewhat awkwardly, “biblioclasty.” He has stood amid the ruins of great libraries in Sarajevo and present-day Baghdad and he has been active in efforts to rebuild their ransacked collections. Still, his infamous history leaves a lingering puzzle: Why does the destruction of books — inanimate objects, after all — provoke such a distinct sense of horror in us? In many cultures, of course, the book has been revered as a sacred artifact and even today we feel this; we’d rather give a book away than destroy it. But the true reason may lie deeper. Books are made out of words and it is words that define us. We are the rational, the speaking, animals. To burn a book is to aim a blow at the very meaning of what we are.

The New York Sun

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