Friday, September 12, 2008
A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BOOKS: FROM ANCIENT SUMER TO MODERN IRAQ
Fernando Báez, translated by Alfred MacAdam
Atlas & Co.
One of the first inquiries that Sarah Palin made when she became mayor of Wasilla, Alaska, in 1996, was to ask the city librarian if she would be open to banning books from the library. The librarian explained that all the library books had been "purchased in accordance with national standards and professional guidelines" and that she would fight anyone who tried to dictate what would sit on the library shelves. Ms. Palin went about her business of governing the town of 6,300 residents, performing tasks such as asking most of the city officials under her authority for their resignation, including the librarian, as part of a "loyalty" test. Ultimately, the librarian stayed on at the library and Ms. Palin moved on to other things.
The news splash of that almost-forgotten episode in the life of the person who may well end up only a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, as the morning talk show hosts like to say, instigated within me a thought-process that eventually led to Fernando Báez's Universal History of the Destruction of Books. It started with trying to put myself in the place of the small-town mayor who thought that a priority after winning the election was to worry about the subversive, dangerous and evil books in the city library. It ended with reading Báez's catalog of the incessant war against writers, ideas, history and identity.
Báez writes about much more than banning books, of course. His subject is the story of the obsessive violence committed by humans against books since books were first invented. He writes about the burning of books, about bibliocaust, which he defines as the destruction of books in "an attempt to annihilate a memory considered to be a direct or indirect threat to another memory thought superior."
Báez is the director of Venezuela's National Library and a recognized world authority on the history of libraries. His incredible saga about the destruction of books begins and ends in Iraq, where humanity's first books appeared, a "great paradox" according to Báez. In Sumer (southern Iraq), between 4100 and 3300 BC, Báez estimates that 100,000 clay tablets were destroyed, primarily because of the wars between the city states, which were always accompanied by fires. The last chapter describes the author's 2003 visit to Iraq as a member of the U.N. committee investigating the destruction of the country's libraries and museums.
Báez details the looting, ransacking, and burning of Iraq's libraries. He describes the destruction of books, tablets, artifacts, state records and documents - the heritage of the country. The numbers he cites are staggering: ten million documents disappeared from the Iraqi National Archive, including tomes from the Ottoman period such as registries and decrees; almost a million books were lost in the looting and burning of the National Library; more than 150,00 clay tablets have disappeared from archaeological sites. The University of Baghdad was attacked by looters in April, 2003, shortly after the U.S. invasion. The destruction was complete, rendering the University "desolate" and "burned-out." The library in the College of Physicians, which had a collection of medieval Arabic texts on medicine, was emptied. A student told Báez: "Someday someone will burn the Library of Congress, you know, but they won't lose anything like what's been destroyed here."
The destruction and looting had been expected and two months before the U.S invasion a group of archaeologists met with advisers to the U.S. President and warned them that museums and archaeological sites had be protected by U.S. troops. Five thousand essential sites were on a list presented to Martin Sullivan, President Bush's cultural adviser.The warnings and list were ignored and Sullivan resigned in frustration when the looting began. The litany of war crimes ascribed to the U.S. includes violations of the Hague Convention of 1954 because U.S. troops did not protect the cultural institutions of Baghdad. For example, after soldiers knocked down a statue of Saddam outside the National Library, they left, leaving the building open to looting and arson. Báez concludes that "Iraq was the first place to fall victim to cultural annihilation in the twenty-first century."
Among the Ten Worst Moments in the History of Books, compiled by Baez, is the destruction of Mayan books in 1562 in Mexico. In Maní, in the Yucatán, Diego de Landa burned 5000 idols and twenty-seven codices of the ancients. This statistic is found in the chapter entitled The Destruction of Pre-Hispanic Culture in the Americas and, again, the parade of horrors, the description of over five hundred years of plunder, is overwhelming.
In 1530, in Texcoco, the first bishop of Mexico, Juan de Zumárraga, made a bonfire of all the writings and idols of the natives. Ironically, Zumárraga introduced printing to Mexico; he also created the first public library in Mexico. In their zeal to obliterate native culture, the Spaniards destroyed and outlawed all symbolic manuscripts of the Indians including magic figures and charms. Gold objects were melted down or seized as "trophies" by European collectors. Báez notes that although the list is not long, the most important codices are now in Europe. These surviving Aztec codices are of colonial origin. Mayan theatrical performances were prohibited; only three pre-Hispanic Mayan codices survived the purges. The disappearance of the native culture was so complete that Báez can state: "No one imagines that a Christian cathedral could be built on top of the pyramids of Egypt or the Sphinx, but that is exactly what happened in Mexico during the sixteenth century."
The Introduction to this book explains Báez's basic theories about the type of person who burns books and why such destruction has been a consistent part of the world's history. He states that books are not destroyed as physical objects but as links to memory - "there is no identity without memory. If we do not remember what we are, we don't know what we are." When a group or nation attempts to subjugate another group or nation, the traces of memory must be erased. Báez also concludes that there are dozens of causes for the destruction of a book or library but the root of all such destruction is the "intent to induce historical amnesia that facilitates control of an individual or a society." Báez writes about the Culture of Destruction, and one of his most troubling observations is that, in general, bibliocasts are "well-educated people, cultured, sensitive, perfectionists, painstaking, with unusual intellectual gifts, depressive tendencies, incapable of tolerating criticism, egoists, mythomaniacs, members of the middle or upper classes, with minor traumas in their childhood or youth, with a tendency to belong to institutions that represent constituted power, charismatic, with religious and social hypersensitivity. To all that we would add a tendency to fantasy. In sum, we have to forget the stereotype of the savage book destroyer. Ignorant people are the most innocent."
There are chapters about the Library of Alexandria; China; Rome and Early Christianity; the Islamic World; the Renaissance; England; the Rise of Fascism and the infamous Nazi book-burnings; and the conflicts between battling ethnicities such as the Bosnian War (1992-1995) when some of the "most radical acts of violence in European cultural history were perpetrated." The book is complete and devastating in its indictment of the complicity in this violence of those in control, those who have the power or who are seizing power, whatever historical time period is discussed.
I took away from the book the important lesson that book burnings and censorship are products of the divide between us and them; that, as Báez writes, the negation of the other requires control, which in turn means barring information. This tendency in all of us can be opposed and stopped. We can resist the censors when they come to our town, and just like the librarian of a small Alaskan library, we can fight for