The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity
By James Raven
London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004
Hard back: ISBN: 1403921199 Price: $65.00
An eyewitness account of the sacking and destruction of the Iraqi National Libraries in April 2003 leads Philip Hensher to note, “The burning of books…is so powerful a symbol of barbarism that the stench of it hangs in the air long afterward: It is something impossible to forgive, impossible to forget.” Unfortunately, this was not the first time books were destroyed in Iraq. According to Lost Libraries, “Genghis Khan’s grandson burnt the city in the thirteenth century and, so it was said, the Tigris River ran black with the ink of books.”
Lost Libraries offers a sobering reminder of the fragility of book collections. Editor James Raven’s introduction sets the tone for the subsequent essays. It is also the best piece in the book, cogently surveying a couple thousand years of catastrophes that have befallen libraries. The other contributors consider specific examples of book dispersals and their implications.
The essays also explore how the systematic destruction of books and libraries can be used as a tool of propaganda for both the pillager and the victim. The conqueror tries to obliterate the culture, the language, and the morale of the conquered. The conquered sometimes exaggerate the damage to great collections to illustrate the barbarity of the conqueror. There are many dramatic stories of the burning of Alexandria’s library on the orders of Julius Caesar and Caliph Omar, but modern scholars have discovered these are myths that conveniently mask the likelihood that the collections gradually degraded over centuries. Lost to our cultural memory, however, is the story of the destruction of Europe’s greatest medieval library, assembled by the Hungarian scholar-king Matthias Corvinus.
Sometimes libraries are destroyed by dispersing books rather than burning them, and that loss becomes someone else’s gain. This equation is elaborated in essays by Nigel Ramsay about the breakup of English libraries following Henry VIII’s reformation and by Dominique Varry on the seizure of private libraries during the French Revolution. These social upheavals redistributed vast collections of incunabula, manuscripts, and printed books. Many treasures were lost, but many found their way into the British Library and the Bibliothéque Nationale, which made the works available to the public for the first time.
The twenty-first century isn’t immune to the destruction of collections. There are modern human catastrophes—the fall of Baghdad, the occupation of Tibet—which orphan or destroy many books. The de-accessioning of books and periodicals by modern libraries creates new controversies for debate, diasporas for scholars to pursue, and opportunities for collectors to buy.
The essays, as individual pieces, are intensely focused on specific historical periods and subjects, as opposed to the epochal scope and themes in another book on the subject, Matthew Battles’s Library: An Unquiet History. Collectors and readers alike will appreciate Lost Libraries. The writing is lucid and engaging, too often a rarity in scholarly literature, and the passion of the authors is palpable.