Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden - review by Timothy W Ryback

Timothy W Ryback

Bonfires of Reason

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack


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Three infamous conflagrations illuminate the pages of Richard Ovenden’s fascinating new history, Burning the Books. The first is the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, which, according to Ovenden, did not go up in a single blaze but was gradually destroyed by repeated acts of arson and plunder, until there was nothing left but a metaphor. The second is the burning of the US Library of Congress by the British in 1814, when soldiers’ faces were ‘illumined’ by the flames. ‘I do not recollect to have witnessed, at any period in my life,’ a British soldier said, ‘a scene more striking or sublime.’ The third burning is certainly the best known: the Nazi Bücherverbrennungen that followed Hitler’s rise to power. ‘The 10 May 1933 book-burning was merely the forerunner of arguably the most concerted and well-resourced eradication of books in history,’ Ovenden writes.

As a former keeper of special collections at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford and now Bodley’s Librarian, Ovenden is well versed in the particulars of preserving books, both ancient and modern. ‘One of the problems with papyrus was how easily it could be set on fire,’ Ovenden writes in his chapter on the Great Library of Alexandria. ‘Being made from dried organic matter, wrapped tightly around a wooden rod, it is inherently flammable.’ Bound books, printed on paper, burn at 451 degrees Fahrenheit, Ovenden reminds us, invoking Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel that takes its name from this.

For all the ephemera on the preservation and destruction of books he provides, Ovenden’s real interest, as stated in his book’s subtitle, is the relationship between knowledge and power. He succeeds convincingly in illustrating the connection between the two. He offers King Henry VIII as an example. The king dispatched John Leland, a court bibliophile, to scour the monastery libraries of England for books and documents to legitimise his divorce from his first wife. ‘Through this commission, Leland took an active role in the king’s “great matter”,’ Ovenden writes, producing ‘the arguments in support of annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and the legitimacy of his new wife, Anne Boleyn’. Later, Leland’s meticulous records, now in Ovenden’s care at the Bodleian, were used to plunder and burn many of England’s great monastic book collections. Leland went mad with grief. ‘He collapsed into a frenzied state,’ Ovenden writes, in large part because of his inadvertent role in the destruction of the books he loved.

Ovenden discerns a similar power play in the British burning of the Library of Congress. ‘The members of Congress were unharmed,’ he writes, ‘but with their building burned, and the information they relied on to function destroyed, their political status needed to be rebuilt fast.’ Ovenden’s most compelling case study is of the bombardment with incendiary shells of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina by Serb militia during the Siege of Sarajevo on the evening of 25 August 1992. Ovenden states bluntly, ‘the library was the sole target’ of the attack. Destroying this collection of ‘1.5 million books, manuscripts, maps, photographs and other materials’ was part of a genocidal process, he argues, the ultimate aim of which was the eradication of the centuries-old Muslim presence in the Balkans. Ovenden highlights the point by noting that András Riedlmayer, a librarian at Harvard’s Fine Arts Library, served as a prosecution witness in the trial of Slobadan Milošević. ‘Riedlmayer is one of the few librarians to have faced war criminals,’ Ovenden observes.

Ovenden’s love of libraries and archives, most particularly his own, is evident throughout this book. He returns repeatedly to the Bodleian and scours its depths for anecdotes and manuscripts. In one chapter titled, ‘Paradise Lost?’, Ovenden recalls a book burning at Oxford, held in ‘the quadrangle of the Old Schools’ on 16 June 1660, during which the books of John Milton ‘were called in and “burnd” after having been “taken out of those libraryes where they were”’. In another chapter, ‘How to Disobey Kafka’, he recounts the famous story of how Max Brod refused to burn Franz Kafka’s papers, the bulk of which are now in the Bodleian Library, and rescued the work of one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.

Perhaps Ovenden’s finest achievement in Burning the Books is to demonstrate the importance and enduring power of preserved knowledge, whether in clay tablets, papyrus scrolls, bound codices, printed books or digital bytes. ‘Rulers wanted to have information that would help them to decide the optimal time to go to war, plant a crop, harvest a crop, and so on,’ Ovenden writes of the cuneiform tablets of ancient Mesopotamia. ‘Today, the future continues to be dependent on access to the knowledge of the past and will be even more so as digital technology changes the way we can predict what will happen.’

However, these ‘digital bodies of knowledge’ are different in nature and quantity from traditional books and manuscripts. Ovenden notes that, in 2019, 18.1 million text messages were sent every minute, as well as 87,500 tweets. Wikipedia has five to six thousand hits per second. A California-based digital service, the Wayback Machine, has archived 441 billion websites. ‘Archiving the datasets created by the big tech companies, such as the advertisements on Facebook, the posts on Twitter, or the “invisible” user data harvested by the adtech companies is one of the major challenges facing the institutions charged with the preservation of knowledge,’ Ovenden writes.

Ovenden sees myriad threats to knowledge amid this ‘digital deluge’. There is ‘linkrot’, those links that lead you to websites that are no longer available. There are denial-of-service-type cyberattacks, like the one that crippled Estonia in 2007, which see websites bombarded with queries, overwhelming servers and causing them to crash (even the Bodleian has been targeted). There is ‘fake news’, as well as ‘alternative facts’, and the manipulation or intentional erasure of data. Ovenden sees the emergence of ‘private knowledge kingdoms’ and ‘surveillance capitalism’ as particular threats: a ‘disproportionate amount of the world’s memory has now been outsourced to tech companies without society realising the fact or really being able to comprehend the consequences’.

Ovenden’s professional expertise and personal passion are evident on every page of Burning the Books. His characterisation of librarians as preservers, gatekeepers and occasional brokers of information along the knowledge–power axis is compelling. I have only one quibble with this masterful history. In his chapter ‘Sarajevo Mon Amour’, about the burning of the Sarajevo library, Ovenden refers to Austria as ‘the region’s former colonial ruler’. It should be noted that Bosnia and Herzegovina were annexed, not colonised, by Austria-Hungary. But this lapse can be forgiven, coming from a citizen of a former colonial power who has spent much of his career deep within the walls of the Bodleian Library.

On opening Ovenden’s fascinating and rewarding history, a reader may perhaps be disappointed, as I was, to come face to face with the famous observation of the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, ‘Whenever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people.’ Although Ovenden offers one of the more elegant translations, I wondered whether he might have found an equally pithy but not quite so frequently used aphorism as an epigraph. On finishing, Burning the Books, I realised that the subject demanded exactly that line, and that, in fact, it can never be repeated too often.

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