A flaming injustice that destroys our records

Books on Fire

January 4, 2008

The 1992 incineration of the National Library in Sarajevo was a wake-up call for those who care about the fate of libraries. Anxious to bear witness to library destruction through the ages, activist bibliophiles looked in vain for raw material with which to construct texts of illumination and protest. Biblioclasm, however, was a mere shadow in the historical record and literature. No substantive works addressed the prevalence of deliberate book destruction and identified it as a phenomenon of major proportions.

In the new millennium, a handful of scholars have set out to address this lack. Lucien X. Polastron's Livres en feu (2003) was one of the earliest books on the subject. In 2004 it won the Société des Gens de Lettres Prize for Nonfiction/History, and it is now available in English under the title Books on Fire: The Tumultuous Story of the World's Great Libraries .

This is an ambitious book with much to offer the bibliophile and historian. The first six chapters relay the history of libraries in Mesopotamia, Egypt, in Islamic regions, in Asia and in the Christian West. With these chapters alone, Polastron fills a significant gap in the literature about book destruction in early China and under Islam.

Chapter 7, "The New Biblioclasts", is a scattershot tour of 20th-century destruction. It jumps from the Second World War to Communist Russia, Cambodia, Kashmir and, in a surprising change of scale, contemporary right-wing censorship in France. Polastron has difficulty handling the modern, intentional destruction of libraries. There is a lack of sociological context, and the author often falls back on an anecdotal approach, to the unfortunate detriment of sustained analysis.

"It is high time to settle the fate of the ill-considered words once uttered by Amadou Ampêté Bah: every time an elder dies in Africa a library is burned," Polastron writes, gearing up for effect. "The continent does in fact have its share of old ignoramuses, but these words imply definitively that things are going quite well over there and that the good Negro needs no libraries." This tasteless statement seriously compromises any humanity the author would claim to employ.

Throughout, the reader is saturated with facts, swept along by elegant language and entertained with lively anecdotes and dashing comments, such as Polastron's conclusion that after Rome "the sword-and-sandals flick comes to an end and the film noir of true biblioclasty begins". Unfortunately, at other times, Polastron's insights are but entertaining throwaways, some as crudely expressed as the example above. Another example, its tone again undercutting the message, is Polastron's comment that Noah would have been well advised to instal collections of ancient texts in his hold "in place of so many stupid animals".

In the final chapters, Polastron discusses the new library at Alexandria and the idea of a universal library. He sounds the alarm about miscellaneous contemporary threats to the world's collections from fire, floods, earthquakes, vandals, misguided architects, overzealous administrators bent on purging and technophiles. Polastron is particularly concerned about overdependence on digitalisation and the effects of materialistic, anti-intellectual trends on the future of libraries.

At the end of the book the reader is treated to two appendixes: one, a romp through libraries in literature through the visions of Cervantes, Borges, Shaw, Canetti, Huxley, Orwell and Bradbury; the other, a tantalising proposal of a legendary lost library of ancient manuscripts in Russia. Polastron is at his best when appealing to the bibliophile, as when he describes a "library of libraries" within the Egyptian National Library: if a great writer donates his library, the books are shelved separately and in their original order, as a portrait of the former owner.

Polastron's book is a valuable contribution to the literature on libraries. It is scholarly to a degree, as well as wry, witty, gossipy and polemic. It is passionate and personal, rather than analytical and academic. Polastron is obviously devoted to libraries and determined to record the varied faces of the barbarism that threatens to decimate them.

Rebecca Knuth is professor of library and information science at the University of Hawaii. She is the author of Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction , published by Praeger.

Books on Fire: The Tumultuous Story of the World's Great Libraries

Author - Lucien X Polastron
Pages - 384
Price - £18.95
ISBN - 9780500513842
Translator - Jon E. Graham

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