“The Universal History of the Destruction of Books” by F. Baez is, simply, as sad as it sounds like it’s going to be. Written more like an encyclopedia than a typical pop history title, the author takes us painfully through the years listing instances of fear mongering, political maneuvering, back stabbing, deceit, religious tyranny, unfortunate accidents, and plain human foolishness that makes up the history of the lost written word.
Each instance is given but a cold retelling of events; the author’s lack of emotion in some instances reads like a coping mechanism developed after researching such a dark subject.
What have I’ve learned so far?
Mostly that humans seem to have always lacked recognition and respect for what should be preserved. A change in leadership? Everything from ‘before’ into the flames, if you please. New technology? Well, let’s just copy a few things over and throw out all that other old stuff. Or use them to light the laps (yes, this was the sad fate of many thousands of books).
Perhaps more interesting is the observed power of the written word that seems to permeate every culture, time, religion and political force–the book as a weapon. Since it’s inception, thee written word has been punished with more severity than a common criminal for its association with the ability to change us more than some of our leaders have thought acceptable. The fear is evident in the many instances of fiery ends that our books have faced and I’ve only read through the part on Early Christians.
I’ve been interested by the desire among humans to eat books in order to consume their knowledge that Baez lists. Sometimes done to protect a book, often in history this was seen as way to ‘ingest’ the knowledge contained within in a spiritual way.
Also interesting to read about are the major burnings outside the most commonly known ones (like the Library of Alexandria) including a massive effort to contain Christianity during its juvenile years. Sects like Euchites (proclaimers that the Devil could not be looked upon so harshly since he was, after all, a son of God) and the Adamites (who wanted humans to return to their original, nude state) threatened to change the shape of the Church so their priests, and perhaps more importantly, their texts were burned.
Amidst the terrible accounts of, say, finding a catalogue of a long-ago-destroyed Ancient Greek library that details hundreds of titles we have simply never seen but now know to have once existed, there are also stories of great courage and beauty. My favorite so far is a story from a Swiss monastery where, in 926, one of the women had a terrible vision and buried the books from the library. A day later an attack came and the library was burned. The woman, Wiborda, lay mutilated and dying on the place where the books were buried. The first woman formally canonized Wiborda is the patron saint of bibliophiles.
I’ll end by quoting a deacon from Spain who was noted as shouting the following as he and his texts came before the flames: “The fire with which you threaten sacred letters will burn you in an act of justice!” As I read more (and save this book safely on my shelf… hopefully) I will certainly be looking for some possibly literal consequences of his curse.