February 2015 | Nicholas Basbanes

Biblioclasm in Mosul

highlight_books_iraq.jpgWhen innocent people are being slaughtered by ISIS terrorists in the most savage and unspeakable of ways, it is easy to marginalize reports that they are also hauling precious books by the hundreds into the streets of Mosul in northern Iraq and turning them into ashes. The justification given for this latest example of large-scale biblioclasm--by definition, the deliberate destruction of books as a means of eradicating another people--is that it is a systematic initiative bent on "cultural cleansing," which in this instance is the immolation of any books they regard as inimical to their particular interpretation of Islam.

News stories (see also here; and here) of the past couple of weeks have reported that 2,000 volumes were taken from the Central Library of Mosul, including children's stories, poetry, philosophy and books on sports, health, culture and science, and destroyed; only Islamic texts were left behind. A few days later, scientific texts from the University of Mosul library were piled in a heap and set ablaze in front of students. Other accounts report heavy damage to the archives of a Sunni Muslim library in Mosul, the library of the 265-year-old Latin Church and Monastery of the Dominican Fathers, and the Mosul Museum Library with works dating back to 5000 B.C.

Nine years ago this month--this very week, in fact--I traveled to Iraq at the invitation of Lt. Col. Brian McNerney, then a senior public affairs officer with the U.S.Army, now an archivist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas, to speak at the dedication of a new library he had just willed into existence at Camp Anaconda in Balad. One of the inducements to my making the trip was his offer to take me to the city of Ur, where one of the civilized world's first gathering of books had been established in Old Testament times, and then to Mosul, where we would visit the nearby archaeological site of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal in ancient Nineveh. I wrote about the visit to Ur in Fine Books & Collections, the Los Angeles Times, and the Christian Science Monitor. Unfortunately, we never made it to Mosul; then, as now, it was a very dangerous place--for people, and, it turns out, also for books.

--Nicholas Basbanes is the author, most recently, of On Paper: The Everything of Its Two Thousand Year History.

Image: Browsing titles at a book market in Iraq. ©Larisa Epatko via UNESCO.