Thursday, 3 June 2010

Ten Worst Moments in the History of Books

Living five minutes by foot from the Anna Amalia Library, one of the world’s greatest, founded in 1696 by the eponymous Countess who became Goethe’s patroness, is a great blessing. (Serendipitous discoveries on its weekly New Books rack almost compensates for its dearth of English language titles.) The latest such bibliographic boon is the 12 year labor of love by Fernando Baez, director of Venzuela’s National Library, “A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq” (New York: Atlas & Co.,2008, Translated by Andrew MacAdam.)

Not the least of its assets is a 35 page bibliography of almost 600 titles, getting into the particulars of library history, such as the transitions from cuneiformed clay tablets to papyrus and vellum. And most amazing of all is the ancients’ miserable batting average in passing on the complete works of major authors!

Aristotle, for example, “What we have today of Aristotle are merely class notes gathered together and preserved by bibliophiles or disciples. His first dialogues, miscellaneous writings, letters and poems have all disappeared.” (Baez, p.57.) How precarious the library was as a social institution before printing gave it a survival edge is amazing to this book lover!

More to the point is the map on page 282 entitled “Ten Worst Moments in the History of Books”:

1.Library of Alexandria, 48 BCE
2.Qin Shi Huang, Destruction of Scrolls, China, 213 BCE
3.Mongol Destruction Baghdad Libraries, 1258
4.Cordoba, Spain 980
5.Savanarola’s Auto-Da-Fe, Florence, Italy,1498
6.Burned Mayan Writings, Mexico,1562
7.Burning of the Library of Congress, Washington,D.C. 1814
8.Nazi Bibliocaust, May 10, 1933
9.Destruction of Nation Library, Bosnia-Herzogovina, Sarajevo, 1992
10.Libraries Burned in Iraq, 2003

Let’s look at the last first. Basically it was because no plans were laid for protecting Iraq after the crash victory that there was such mayhem. Baez notes sadly that he arrived to participate in a professional review of damages, that exactly 70 years after the Nazi Bibliocaust had occurred in Berlin. As the Shock and Awe campaign reached it apex, Baez notes that in the well protected Ministry of Petroleum, not so much as a pencil was stolen. The conquering Army’s values were evident: Oil mattered, Culture not.

“On April 10, a crowd gathered in the unprotected library. First they were cautious and swift, then brazen. Women and children, young and old, took away everything they could.The first group of looters knew where the most important manuscripts were and grabbed them up. Others, hungry and resentful of the old regime, came later and brought on disaster. They took the photocopy machines, the paper, computers, printers and all the furniture.” Baez, p. 269.

The vandals returned a week later with the white phosphorous they had stolen from the passive soldiers and set fire to the stacks. (Water cannot quench white phosphorous!) Donald Rumsfeld illiterate reaction:”Stuff happens!” He “reasoned” that “Freedom’s untidy, and free people aree to make mistakes and commit crimes, and do bad things.” So, clearly, are Secretaries of “Defense”.

The only other American participation in the Bibliocaust happened during the War of 1812.

The British burning of the White House, the Treasury, the Capitol and the Library of Congress was a reaction to President James Madison sending American troops into Toronto where they burned the Parliament and its legislative library. The new Library of Congress(1812) was torched in 1814.At least 2,000 books were burned.

Jefferson, always near his last dollar, recommended that the L of C buy his collection of 6,487 volumes—eventually in 1815 for $23,950, a maneuver that Baez snootily describes as “an act of cynical philanthropy”. In the interim the L of C has grown to one of the most renowned on the planet: 29 million books in 470 languages, 56 million manuscripts, 500,000 microfilm documents 4.8 million maps, and 2.7 million recordings! (Including my Folkways recording of the NAEB’s “Ways of Mankind”radio documentaries-“A Word in Your Ear: a Study in Language” and “I Know What I Like: A Study in Art”. Moe Asch wanted to make the entire series accessible on Folkways, but he passed too soon. Every quarter I get a sales report from the Smithsonian.

Last month they told me I sold $5.70 worth of I-phone pickups!. Next quarter I hope to cash in my first $25.00, the minimum! I’m going to tell them to send it to the Iraqui National Library, a token recompense for Rumsfeld’s illiterate barbarism. Meanwhile, read Baez’s history of how hard it’s been getting that most civilized of institutions up and running.

There’s even a photo from the disastrous Anna Amalia fire (an electric circuit malfunctioned) of 2004, in which Director Michael Knoche became a national hero for going into the flames and saving Martin Luther’s 1534 Bible. My wife was one of the 500 souls who formed lines of retrieval. (I was off in Finland confirming my faith in Alvar Aalto.)

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