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burning the books

28 january 2021

Richard Ovenden's Burning the Books is subtitled "A history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge," though it goes well beyond instances of destruction to talk about the history of libraries in general, and often about the rebuilding of their collections in the wake of a particular destruction. Ovenden's case studies range from wars and persecutions on national scales to intimate acts of obliteration, like the destruction of letters and diaries.

The title Burning the Books makes one think of Nazis, and indeed Nazis are the first book-burners that Ovenden mentions, and they occupy a central chapter in his chronicle. But of course not all book-destroyers are Nazis or even Nazi-adjacent. One plain fact of life is that you can't keep everything. Libraries constantly discard items; institutions and private citizens alike continually choose what to keep and what to toss. The digital age, with its promise of infinite expanses of virtually-free storage, only complicates the problem, as the Library of Congress learned during its short-lived attempt to archive everything ever posted on Twitter. Even if you could create an archive of every tweet ever delivered, it would be a lifeless record without a concomitant record of who liked and retweeted what tweets, and what each user's feed looked like at a given moment in time … a project that soon takes on the dimensions of Jorge Luis Borges' fabulous 1:1 scale map, or perhaps Steven Wright's collection of billions of seashells, which he keeps on all the beaches of the world.

I had barely decided to read Burning the Books when I was faced with a self-referential decision:

I deleted that sample of knowledge irrevocably, and replaced it with a copy of the entire book. But do I now "own" Burning the Books? Can I shore it against my ruins? What if Amazon goes belly-up – seems unthinkable now, but many a giant company has vanished; and if Amazon goes it will take a significant part of my personal library with it. And even if Amazon stays with us: what will happen when they migrate to Kindle 2.0 and I have to buy all the same e-books I already bought, just to be able to keep reading them?

And even with the best of intentions and strong institutional continuity, things just decay, via linkrot or more material dissolution. The Library of Alexandria, another archetype of the destroyed library, was (says Ovenden) probably not torched by a Caesar or a Caliph: its scrolls just degraded over the centuries in the Mediterranean air. "The slow smokeless burning of decay," Robert Frost called it, has destroyed far more libraries than Nazis have.

And there are times when the burning of priceless literary documents is a positive act of virtue. Ovenden looks at the burnings of Byron's memoirs, of Sylvia Plath's and Philip Larkin's diaries. The circumstances differed: in Byron's case, general prudishness seemed to dictate that his more Byronic side be hidden from a judgmental public. Ted Hughes destroyed Plath's journals because he didn't want his children to be hurt – and as Ovenden notes, probably because Hughes didn't want to see himself disgraced. Larkin's diaries were burned at his own request, though his motive was perhaps less self-regard – even Larkin's poetic persona is something of a bastard, so it would be odd if he cared what people thought of him – than his desire not to let his loved ones know what he secretly and selfishly wrote about them. Ovenden contrasts Betty Mackereth's destruction of Larkin's diaries to Max Brod's defiance of Franz Kafka's wishes that his literary manuscripts be burned. Obviously it's one thing to burn some sophomoric scribblings and quite another to burn The Trial. But how will we ever know just how sophomoric Philip Larkin's diaries may have been?

The greater part of Burning the Books, though, is taken up with armies and civilian reformers seeking out archives and pillaging them. Sometimes this is just bloody-mindedness. Sometimes it's a form of cultural genocide, and sometimes accompanies corporal genocide. Sometimes it's a desire to gain the power that another group has stored up in their libraries. Ovenden traces the last of these motives way back to the earliest historical times in Mesopotamia, where cuneiform-tablet libraries encoded esoteric lore and prophecies, and to the victor went the arcana. Sometimes destroyers (like British colonists) pulped records to cover the tracks of their own maladministration. Sometimes archives of property were destroyed in the service of expropriation. From the Reformation to the shelling of libraries in Louvain and Sarajevo, to the ransacking of Tamil archives and the imperiling of records in Ethiopia and Yemen down to the present day, the history of storing knowledge seems inextricable from the impulse to destroy knowledge.

Ovenden ends with recommendations and a call to action: it is time for investment in stable, accessible, publicly-managed archives. He is skeptical of the missions and motives of the private tech giants who now have so much of the world's information in their hands. We might be just as skeptical of public institutions. College libraries seem increasingly to be losing their way as they become virtual portals attached to COVID-shuttered study halls, snack bars, and "maker spaces" stuffed with table saws and sewing machines. This very website you are reading, hosted at a state university, will blink into nothingness a few months after I retire or die. I have more faith in municipal libraries, which still draw the support of even right-wing, cost-cutting local governments. Go support yours with your time, money, and patronage.

Ovenden, Richard. Burning the Books: A history of the deliberate destruction of knowledge. Cambridge, MA: Belknap [Harvard], 2020. Kindle Edition.