Monday, February 28, 2011

Fernando Báez' "A Universal History of the Destruction of Books": Review

This Venezuelan librarian answers what a history student, at Baghdad's university in 2003, wonders after the library's been looted of every volume: why does man destroy so many books? The book begins and ends in Iraq, where the earliest texts we have survive, only because of the flames that consumed and preserved their clay tablets. Twelve years of research results in the first "single history of their destruction" (7). Intriguingly, the author has "concluded that the more cultured a nation or a person is, the more willing each is to eliminate books under the pressure of apocalyptic myths" (18) Bibliophiles often can be biblioclasts. We all, he insists, in dividing up "us" vs. "them" negate each other, and play into censorship, exclusion, and eradication as we cannot tolerate criticism or opposition.

Translated in pithy style by Alfred MacAdam, it's a fluid and direct overview. Uruk, where the first surviving books can be found in Sumer, represents the creation simultaneous with the destruction of texts. Tablets were baked in the fires of battle, between 4100 and 3300 BCE. Little survives from so many ancient eras: 75% of Greek manuscripts lost; 80% of Egyptian texts vanished. This grim catalogue continues, as we find patterns repeated from the start of civilization, as invaders and barbarians plunder and eliminate no less than the kings and the clerics.

It's a study perhaps better sampled, as Báez suggests, rather than taken start to finish. The nature of the topic makes an uneven, incomplete, and enigmatic treatment-- appropriately if frustratingly-- for the material. The tone's not always scholarly; there's moments of verve that ease the flow of often disheartening lists of the losses that have been incurred by fire, insects, weather, and ideology. Qin Shi Huang's forces in 213 BCE carried out a typical binge: "Functionaries went from house to house seizing books, which they then burned in a bonfire, to the joyful surprise of those who hadn't read them." (68) Augustus the emperor "burned more than 2,000 Greek and Roman works he didn't like. He was a severe critic." (77) "The life of Yakov ben Judah Leib Frankovich was that of any fanatic: unsettled, no security, immodest." (178)

You learn about Nicolas Turrianos, who in copying codices for the Spanish king Philip II enabled "a special collection of forbidden books made up of volumes sewn shut so that no one could read them." (174) Or, how the Great Soviet Encyclopedia, after Stalin's security chief Beria's death, sent subscribers a postcard of the Bering Sea to paste over the entry on that now disgraced chief of Soviet security.

And, while you may recognize the name of the venerable Swiss library at St Gall, I doubt if many will have heard of the first woman formally canonized, St. Wiborada. She threw herself on top of her buried books after the Huns set fire to the abbey. Her mutilated body was found above the library's contents, protected by her foresight beneath the earth. For this, she's venerated as the patron saint of librarians.

While the Nazi desecration gains attention, along with the Islamic and Christian efforts to silence those texts that challenged hegemony, you also learn about both sides in the Spanish Civil War, or Latin American and Bosnian examples, perhaps less documented. Chinese and Soviet biblioclasty, by comparison, received much less space than I expected, and the sustained attention to particular countries or centuries does become sporadic. This may be due to the outbreaks, followed by recoveries, and then-- unfortunately-- usually more outbreaks of fanaticism, that become never predictable throughout five thousand years of purportedly civilized society.

Báez, ending a brief chapter on "the natural enemies of books," notes how fragile transfer to CD or flash drives may be. Even if we can save 14 million volumes on a disc, all it takes is a single scratch and we've lost everything, once more. E-Books are no insurance against loss, for hackers will supplant Huns in coming centuries.

This survey moves, in Borgesian fashion like the allusion in its title, mainly by such anecdotes, short essays, and dutiful lists of what patrimony we have lost. The chapters progress largely chronologically. They often contain factoids and reflections that delight or-- more often-- depress, but the ability of a reader to use this compendium as a reference source may be limited. The index lists only book titles and proper names; the endnotes guide the inquirer to further reading, but the many references and asides in the text to other texts, lost or found, cannot be pursued easily. Citations outside of the endnotes absent, one cannot follow the leads that Báez creates, a strange self-referential system that again may recall Borges, as we're forced to take the author at his word about words we can or cannot track elsewhere. (Posted on 10-23-2008 on Amazon US.)

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