The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World's Most Precious Manuscripts (Simon & Schuster, $26) by former Newsweek foreign correspondent Joshua Hammer is the engrossing story of Abdel Kader Haidara, an archivist and historian who helped recreate Timbuktu's historic manuscript libraries in the 1980s, 90s, and 2000s, and then risked everything to rescue them from Islamic militants bent on destruction.
By 2012, 45 libraries existed in the city, holding 377,000 manuscripts, all of which needed to be saved from the looting that Haidara was sure would ensue after al Qaeda seized the city that spring. Volunteers met under cover of darkness to pack the volumes in footlockers. "One prize was a tiny, irregularly shaped folio that glittered with illuminated blue Arabic letters and droplets of gold--a single page from the twelfth-century Koran written on the parchment of a fish...," writes Hammer. For two hours each night, they packed books into chests with padlocks, "wrapped them in blankets and loaded them onto mule carts," after which they would be transported to dozens of safe houses. From there, trusted couriers smuggled the manuscripts out of Timbuktu to Bamako, Mali's capital--through dangerous jihadist checkpoints every day for months. To call this book a page-turner is to diminish it; the suspense that Hammer creates is vital, but it's his shrewd reporting on cultural terrorism--and those who fought against it--that makes The Bad-Ass Librarians so important. No book lover should miss it.
Further reading: The Wall Street Journal published a mini-excerpt from the book and American Libraries posted an interview with the author.
Image via Simon & Schuster.