Mish­mash des­tined for scrapheap

Jose Borgh­ino

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

FOR most ed­u­cated Western­ers, the wil­ful de­struc­tion of books is the epit­ome of bar­barism, con­jur­ing vi­sions of leer­ing Nazis singing the Horst Wes­sel-lied while con­sign­ing the con­sid­er­able works of Freud, Ein­stein, Marx, Brecht and other de­gen­er­ate ‘‘ un-Ger­mans’’ to the bon­fires.

Why are we so hor­ri­fied by the thought of de­stroy­ing books, es­pe­cially burn­ing them? Maybe it’s the ob­vi­ous con­nec­tion to the burn­ing of peo­ple at the stake; in both cases, there’s a sense in which the vi­o­lence op­er­ates on both a spir­i­tual and a ma­te­rial level. Or per­haps it’s a hang­over from the Dark Ages, when books were scarcer than pre­cious stones, a race mem­ory that says burn­ing a book is ir­re­versible and shame­ful.

Eth­i­cally, it may still be shame­ful, but the re­al­ity is that there is so much printed mat­ter cir­cu­lat­ing in the world to­day that de­stroy­ing books has also de­vel­oped into a very prof­itable busi­ness. Type the phrase ‘‘ book de­struc­tion’’ into your in­ter­net search en­gine and you’ll find thou­sands of en­tries for book de­stroy­ers, in­clud­ing one that boasts: ‘‘ We are se­ri­ous about eth­i­cal de­struc­tion.’’

The para­dox, as the Venezue­lan writer Fer­nando Baez ar­gues in the in­tro­duc­tion to A Uni­ver­sal His­tory of the De­struc­tion of Books , is that de­spite its bad press, an­ni­hi­lat­ing books is also dis­turbingly lib­er­at­ing, usu­ally linked to myths of sym­bolic pu­rifi­ca­tion, sal­va­tion and re­birth. The de­struc­tion of books is rarely un­wit­ting or mind­less. Ex­cept when it’s an ac­ci­dent or an ‘‘ act of God’’, it is of­ten pre­med­i­tated and cal­cu­lated, a the­atri­cal rit­ual aimed at oblit­er­at­ing not just a text, but also an au­thor, idea or na­tional cul­ture.

Most book de­stroy­ers, or bib­lio­clasts, as Baez calls them, are not mo­ronic brutes. Ac­cord­ing to Baez, ‘‘ the more cul­tured a na­tion or a per­son is, the more will­ing each is to elim­i­nate books’’.

In gen­eral, bib­lio­clasts are ‘‘ well-ed­u­cated peo­ple, cul­tured, sen­si­tive, per­fec­tion­ists, with un­usual in­tel­lec­tual gifts, de­pres­sive ten­den­cies, in­ca­pable of tol­er­at­ing crit­i­cism, ego­ists, mytho­ma­ni­acs, mem­bers of the mid­dle or up­per classes with mi­nor trau­mas in their child­hood or youth, charis­matic, with re­li­gious and so­cial hyper­sen­si­tiv­ity’’. A lit­tle bit like you and me, per­haps?

True to his sub­ti­tle — From An­cient Sumer to Mod­ern-day Iraq — Baez em­barks on a roller­coaster ride, de­scrib­ing bib­lio­causts or ma­jor episodes of book de­struc­tion down the ages, start­ing in Me­sopotamia 6000 years ago, skip­ping through an­cient Egypt, Greece, China and Rome, right up to mod­ern times.

The early chap­ters dou­ble as a his­tory of writ­ing and book col­lect­ing, and will ap­peal to those who love lists and ex­otic names such as Ham­murabi, Zen­odotus of Eph­e­sus, Mar­cus Ter­en­tius Varro and Crates of Mal­los.

Of course, the burn­ing of the Li­brary of Alexan­dria ( no fewer than three times) is dealt with here, but so is the ( to me) lesser-known an­tics of the Chi­nese em­peror Qin Shi Huang, who in 213 BC or­dered the burn­ing of all the books in his realm ‘‘ ex­cept those that dealt with agri­cul­ture, medicine, or prophecy’’.

Baez laments the li­braries de­stroyed and works lost in the an­cient world. For in­stance, of the 120 plays at­trib­uted to Sopho­cles, we only have seven; of Euripi­des’s 82 tragedies, only 18 sur­vive; and ev­ery one of the 250 come­dies of Alexis of Turis has been lost. And th­ese, to quote Don­ald Rums­feld, are just the known un-

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