A Very Brief History of Burned Books

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A somewhat obscure placing for a news item of this import: in my local paper, a quarter column piece revealed that the Battery Park Book Exchange and Champagne Bar (anything to draw people to books) had been broken into. The miscreants, of course, had made off with some $500 and apparently some of the champagne. Somehow – and we’re not sure we can blame this on the burglars – a vacuum had caught fire and set off the store’s sprinkler system, damaging several thousand books.

We’re in an era in which by all rights books should be disappearing in favor of the digital and audible varieties. Not so. Readers still want to hold the book, turn its pages, feel the paper’s texture. Libraries are still a core resource in most communities. I can pass by the downtown library at most any hour and see readers inside, researchers plotting ideas, justifying opinions, or just looking for a thought-provoking read.

But libraries – and books – have lived precarious lives. The famed library in Alexandria, Egypt, burned in or around 642 AD, destroying manuscripts dating perhaps a thousand years into antiquity. But this wasn’t the first time the library had tasted fire, but the fourth. Conquerors knew the best way to dominate a conquered culture was to destroy its books and manuscripts.


In the era prior to the year 1000 in Muslim Spain, Cordoba, to be exact, the library of al-Hakam II, reputed to contain some 400,000 volumes, suffered a deliberate burning: the manuscripts were hauled into the street and burned to please religious officials, who mistrusted the philosophies they contained. (btw, go to your local library and look up Cordoba of that era. Prepare to be amazed at the civilization maintained by that Muslim culture.)

In the heady sixties, it was James Michener, I believe, who, in a knockdown argument with campus radicals bargained thusly, “All right, burn the ROTC buildings. Gut the administrative edifices. But please don’t touch the libraries.” Fortunately, they heeded his plea.

All this to say that books – and their repositories – are the cultural bedrock of any culture, and they should be protected as such.


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