Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Destruction of Books

"Our History is revealed by what we destroy as much as by what we preserve" this is how Fernando Baez's A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq.
Of late amid all the economic angst and fear I have found solace in something old and tried- serendipity.
In the age of and online shopping I still find my best books by the serendipity of shopping in a great bookstore.
In Chicago we are blessed to have what I think is the greatest bookstore in the United States, the Seminary Co-op. ( Sem Coop is one of those places where one can find books by everyone from Origen and Horace to Mark Tardi and Peter Gizzi it is in short a great place.
One of my favorite spots is the 'front table' in which Jack Cella the magnificent General Manager places the 'most important' and 'most interesting' books for his bibliographically famished customers. On that table I found two books that satisfy and challenge a poet and a reader to be more.
The first book I found was Alberto Manguel's The Library at Night from the Yale University Press. The book is organized by chapters The Library as... the chapters are really interesting and in this book one description that really held me in thrall was his description of the library in the Theresinstadt Ghetto. If their exists a more moving story than the one Manguel shares with us about Jacob Edelstein's last moments on Earth I have not read it anywhere.
Manguel's book talks about many other things including the National Library of Argentina of Jorge Luis Borges. Manguel is an Argentine and this sensibility fills the book. If you love your library this is your book it takes one away from the banal to a time when time slowed and libraries determined cultural currency. Thomas Merton once said that when he passed a Church he felt like it was a reactor of holiness pulsing and filling the world with grace. I think Manguel's book says the same thing about Libraries and how they fill our world with grace as well.
The second book I found on the table later in the month was Fernando Baez's A Universal History of the Destruction of Books. Baez is the director of Venezuela's National library and his book is chronicle of great crime. He starts with Sumer and ends with Iraq in fact going around the world to chronicle the history of the destruction of books. The book starts talking about the great literate societies that sit at the base of our world. Sumer,China, Israel, Egypt and Greece.
For any lover of Books to hear the stories of the destruction of the libraries of the Hittites, Alexandria and the Egypt makes one wince.
Once we leave the ancient world we move into the middle ages. The time of Lindisfarne, Constantinople and Baghdad. In fact the book also talks about how the children of Lindisfarne (Catholics) Constantinople (Orthodox) and Baghdad (Muslim) proceeded to go out to the world and destroy libraries of Pagans, Native Americans, and Hindus. The saving and destroying of books leads us to pain and anguish about all that has been lost.
What is truly great about Baez's book is that it has short information packed chapters that bring you back to libraries. You want to sit with Rumi or Averroes or Aidan of Lindisfarne and watch them create and save books. Yet this book is about their destruction and the slow pain of this book leads us up to our present day and to the greatest evils of Communism, Fascism and Materialism.
Every child in the West has been brought up with the cliche of books being burned by Nazis. Even Indiana Jones movies have had this image. But the real import of the destruction of books by Nazis and Communists and others is that the openness of ideas which filled the world. It has been said that the Jews and the Germans were two peoples who believed that 'good culture' was important. The death of European Jewish culture and the destruction of Jewish libraries in Poland is one of the greatest crimes of human history. It presaged the destruction of 6 million people.
Baez's book ends with the destruction of libraries in Iraq. Finally he lists the greatest book crimes The Nazi Bibliocaust of 1933-45, Savonarola's Destruction in Florence in 1498, Huang's destruction of Chinese books in 213 BC, Mongol Destruction of the Baghdad library in 1258, the destruction of the library of Alexandria in 48 BC, the destruction of the Cordoba library in 980 the destruction of the Bosnia Library in 1992, and finally the destruction of the Mayan writings in 1562 and the burning of the Library of Congress in 1814.
This book makes one wince at the loss but it also makes real what matters. Ideas and the people who create them is what matters and this book talks about that reality. "Where they have burned books they will eventually burn people" Heine's great quote is writ large in this little book that anyone who loves books should run out at buy... now.

No comments: