Monday, November 02, 2009

Burning books


We all heard about the looting of the Baghdad Archeological Museum in the immediate aftermath of the the US invasion of Iraq. We heard less about the libraries.

A million books in the National Library were burned. The National Archive, with millions of records from the republican and Ottoman periods, went up in smoke. The same took place at the University of Baghdad library, the Awqaf Library, and dozens of university libraries across the country. In Basra, the Museum of Natural History was burned, along with the Central Public Library, the university library, and the Islamic Library. Libraries and archives in Mosul and Tikrit witnessed major destruction. I glean this sad accounting from A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq, by Fernando Baez, director of Venezuela's National Library and scholar of the history of libraries. Baez visited Iraq soon after the invasion as part of the U.N. committee investigating the destruction of that country's cultural treasures.

It's a sad, heartbreaking book, tracing the wanton burning of books from ancient times to the present, in cultures east and west. Often the motive is to erase the traces of an overthrown regime, or to eradicate political or religious ideas considered heretical. Sometimes the motive is sheer anti-intellectualism. Whatever the reason, the result is the same, as described to Baez by a university professor in Baghdad: "Our memory no longer exists."

The book had a special poignance for me as I read it sitting in my usual chair in the stacks of my college library.

It is a convention in science, strictly adhered to, that any paper or book purporting to advance the state of knowledge cites the relevant preceding literature. The idea is that knowledge grows like a tree, each new twig attached to an ever-branching trunk. Burn the trunk or branches and the twig dies. In science, memory is sustenance.

I like to imagine a personal library containing every book I've ever read, in the order that I read them, starting with the Hardy Boys and ending -- for the moment -- with Fernando Baez Such a collection would be a pretty fair picture of who I am. I wonder if anyone has ever done that?

Cultures and civilizations, too, are fairly represented by libraries. It is inconceivable to me that anyone could be so afraid of alien ideas as to send them up in smoke. The painting above, by Pedro Berruguete (15th c.), shows Saint Dominic presiding over the burning of books by Albigensians.