Samuel Noah Kramer told us that history begins at Sumer, and so does the inveterate attempt to expunge it. Pulverized and broken tablets from the city of Uruk (biblical Erech), dating from 4100 to 3300 B.C., bear witness to the beginning of a 7,000-year-long pattern whose most horrible recent manifestation was the wanton devastation in 2003 of Baghdad’s Archaeological Museum and National Library—only 150 miles north of Uruk—under the absent-minded aegis of Operation Shock and Awe. The toll exacted by arsonists and looters: 1 million books, 10 million documents, 14,000 artifacts.
Fernando Báez, a Venezuelan writer whose previous books include The Cultural Destruction of Iraq, sounds like a disciple and imitator of Robert Burton, Jorge Luís Borges and Umberto Eco: a skeptical, omnivorous, funky, depressed (with good reason) bibliophile. Not content with cataloging the myriad assaults against books, incunabula, manuscripts and records of every sort in every age by every brand of fanatic, Báez also lists and laments the ravages caused by accidental fires, floods, wars, insects, material decomposition (e.g., in papyrus and wood pulp paper) and human indifference.
It is an astonishing story. Most readers will have heard of the burning of the Library of Alexandria (often carelessly attributed to Omar I [585-644], but almost certainly the result of various depredations over the centuries by Roman troops, earthquakes and plain old neglect). But Alexandria was only one site among the hundreds that Báez describes or at least enumerates where great collections of books came to ignominious grief: Ebla, Persepolis, much of China in 213 B.C., Ephesus (where books of magic were incinerated at the urging of St. Paul), Byzantium (the Icono-clasts), the Swiss monastery of St. Gall in 926 (Huns), Cairo in 1068 (Turks), Damascus in 1108 (Crusaders), Baghdad in 1258 (Genghis Khan) and on and on. Medieval clerics lit bonfires of Talmuds; conquistadors and monks destroyed Aztec antiquities; Catholics and Puritans burned each other’s books. Revolutionaries, counter-revolutionaries, moral extremists (Savonarola, Anthony Comstock), fascists, Nazis, communists, Russians, Germans, Spaniards, Serbs, you name it (and Báez does, over and over).
One might think that the end of this particular historical nightmare is now in sight, thanks to the ease of mechanical reproduction and the digitizing of information. Surely even the most fiendish tyrant could never succeed in eradicating the Book of Isaiah, the plays of Shakespeare, the scores of Mozart’s operas or Joyce’s Ulysses; there are simply too many copies out there. Báez acknowledges this, after a fashion, when he notes that all of surviving ancient Greek literature can now be inscribed on a single CD; but then, perhaps reluctant to abandon the scenes of conflagration and cultural loss that have fueled his outrage, he adds that CDs are easily scratched and discarded.
Perhaps the most crucial issue Báez raises is the psychology of “biblioclasty.” Obviously, the book-burner is aiming to silence or erase an idea, a school of thought, perhaps an entire culture; but there is more to it than that. (Some of the most ferocious fans of book-burning—Emperor Qin Shi Huang, Cardinal Cisneros, Adolf Hitler—were also avid book collectors.) Báez largely ignores the problem of greater or lesser artistic, intellectual and ethical value; but to judge from the deluge of mediocre (or worse) books, films, programs, ads, speeches and so on pouring out into the contemporary marketplace, can’t we assume that most cultural products of literate societies have always been of—shall we say—limited worth? So perhaps we need not weep too profusely for what has been lost forever. And what about the downright harmful, vicious or worthless books?
The inevitable liberal response here must be that, good, bad or indifferent, we ought to be guided by the Library of Congress’s ideal of preserving—somewhere or other—copies of absolutely everything that gets published. Even wretched stuff is worth knowing about, because it helps to complete our picture of the age that made and consumed it. And then there are the usual John Stuart Mill arguments about the uncertainty of our judgment and the danger of suppressing unpopular opinions. Báez does not come to grips with such questions, but his book serves as a perfect launching pad for them.
Báez’s approach is spirited and journalistic—there are no footnotes or index. On the other hand, he traveled to Iraq and reports movingly about the catastrophes he saw there. His data are generally quite reliable (he claims to have spent 12 years writing the book), though he does betray a weakness for overstatement, flatly declaring, for example, that Dubrovnik was destroyed in 1991 or that Iraq was struck by genocide in 2007. And his grim dossier is important, because of the way it illustrates the endlessly quoted but still indispensable epigraph from Heinrich Heine’s Almansor (1821): “Where they have burned books, they will end by burning human beings.”
There is a lot to be said against human beings (including their habit of writing dreadful books), but letting all of them have their say without violent interruption seems, on the whole, to be the best way of getting at the truth. The United States may not have been plagued by the Khmer Rouge or the Taliban, but we have had and have our share of book-banners and book-burners tackling a whole range of noxious items from Huckleberry Finn to Harry Potter; so it is good to have Báez’s passionate, pessimistic plea for tolerance. John Milton could be an insufferable, humorless, sexist crank, but his words from Areopagitica (1644) still haunt us: “As good almost kill a man as kill a good book: Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God’s image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were in the eye.”