Mishmash destined for scrapheap
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-