Book review: Library: An Unquiet History (National Post, July 26, 2003)

The guardians of memory through history

LIBRARY: AN UNQUIET HISTORY, by Matthew Battles Norton 256 pp., $37.50

Review by Gillian Burnett

If you ever thought that libraries were dull, Matthew Battles will change your mind. In Library: An Unquiet History, the Harvard rare-books librarian tells the story of that peculiar institution, whose fortunes, since man first etched a symbol in stone, have been governed as much by mass uninterest and bureaucratic incompetence as by war and natural disaster. “Libraries are as much about losing the truth … as about discovering it,” writes Battles, pointing out that much of what has survived through the ages is owing not to public institutions but to private collectors, who were better able to weather the tides of biblioclasm — the destruction of books — that have periodically swept the world.

Battles’ tale begins in the third century BC, when the Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi made it his aim to destroy everything written before the advent of the Qin dynasty (his own). Not only did he order that all written records be burned — and the wooden and bamboo strips used as paper would have made perfect kindling — but legend has it that he later executed 460 scholars by burying them alive. While this latter detail, chronicled as it was by a Confucian scholar with an understandable grudge, is almost certainly apocryphal, the fact of its endurance shows that he who is published last, lasts.

This cycle of destruction and revision describes much of the library’s history. Ancient Alexandria, as the centre of the papyrus trade, boasted two great libraries, both of which were set alight repeatedly — once, the story goes, by Julius Caesar, who, in his quest to assert Cleopatra’s right to the Egyptian throne, burned down the city’s harbour and a whole lot besides. In 16th-century Mexico, Spanish conquistadores systematically destroyed all Aztec writings, then realized their blunder: The cultural information in the lost manuscripts would be critical to the success of their Christianizing mission. Thus began a frantic effort to teach Aztec nobles the Roman alphabet in order that they could assist the missionaries in their own conversion.

Given the breadth of the subject, this is a surprisingly slim volume at just over 200 pages. But Battles has paced his book carefully to appeal to the casual reader as well as to the bibliophile. The dramatic episodes, told vividly, bridge the more academic discussions of the changing philosophies that shaped the ancient library — which attempted to distill “all that is Good and Beautiful (in the classical formulation) or [all that is] Holy (in the medieval one).” Each was a reflection of what the word meant to society, much as the modern, universal library reflects our contemporary goals of diversity and unceasing accumulation.

Ancient libraries shared some striking similarities with modern libraries, however, especially when it came to the tough decisions. A scribe’s valuable time was devoted to copying out only those works deemed by a self-appointed few to be major, condemning everything else to obscurity, then oblivion.

Battles describes the egos that conceived the modern world’s greatest libraries, from the Vatican to his own Harvard (victim, along with its 5,000 volumes, of a fire in 1764), to the Royal (now British) Library, whose acquisitions over the years highlight the unusual interests of each monarch. As the field in which the great debate of the day — Ancients v. Moderns — played out, the Royal Library also inspired Jonathan Swift’s 1704 satire, The Battle of the Books, in which Swift imagines a struggle for “pride of place” between the classic works of old and the “torrent” of modern literature, the lamentable result of new technologies.

The most compelling stories, though, are those that deal with recent history. “If the 19th-century was about the building of libraries,” Battles writes, “the 20th was about their destruction.” He recalls the fervent seizure, banning and burning of books in Nazi Germany, where librarians were told to revise their nation’s history. And the list goes on: in Tibet after the Chinese invasion; in Communist China; in the American South and Sri Lanka and Afghanistan and the Balkans — everywhere books exist, in fact — we find biblioclasm.

Most recently, in April, Iraq’s National Library and Archives, with their holdings of more than 20 million documents and books, and the Al-Awqaf Library, containing over 5,000 Islamic manuscripts, were plundered, then razed by arsonists. The losses were eclipsed by the international attention given to the looting of Iraq’s National Museum. Writing in May for The Boston Globe, Battles rebuked the U.S. government for failing to uphold one of the key mandates of the 1907 Hague Convention, to protect cultural property in wartime. He points to a historical parallel: In 1258, Baghdad fell to Mongol invaders, who threw the entire contents of the city’s library into the Tigris, whose “waters allegedly ran black with ink.” Surely, argues Battles, we could have learned from the lessons of our past: Memory will always need its guardians.


Leave a comment

Filed under Reviews

Personal writing: “30 dates in 52 weeks” (National Post, May 31, 2003)

30 dates in 52 weeks

by Gillian Burnett

If someone had told me, during my last serious breakup, that I would still be single seven years on, I wouldn’t have believed it.

Since leaving home I’d been a serial monogamist, leaping from one comfortable relationship to the next.

Then, everything changed. At 26, two things conspired to take me out of the path of single men: I got a job that demanded more time and energy, and my friends started to couple up. Instead of crowded bars and house parties, I increasingly found myself at dinners where I was the lone loner, forever throwing off the seating arrangements.

Let me be clear: I do not ask for your pity. I am no Bridget Jones-style box of neuroses, bingeing and purging my way through the hell of manlessness. I have, mostly, revelled in my singledom, knowing I’ve risked more and developed differently because of it. And I have dated a few good men along the way. Still, when I hit 32, I decided it was time to take matters into my own hands. Literally.

Enter online dating. I had heard good things from friends about their friends who had met men — interesting, attractive men — on the Internet. Curious, I browsed the “Relationships” streams on Lavalife and This up-front declaration of intentions appealed to my sense of efficiency: At least you wouldn’t have to stick around for three months to find out that he put the “omit” in commitment. Each site attracted its own range of men, Lavalife a kind of jock-filled Wal-Mart next to Nerve’s over-educated library of acid-jazz-listening computer geniuses.

The next, surprisingly difficult step was composing a profile. It’s one thing to write about yourself; It’s another to sell yourself on an e-Bay for humans. So I browsed the men’s ads for tips, and quickly figured out how not to make an impression. Don’t describe yourself as a paradox; don’t use phrases like “the whole package”; don’t write your ad in the form of a poem; don’t insist that you won’t reply unless someone has posted a photo.

A photo: That gave me pause. I was determined not to put up a picture, horrified at the thought that any creep could see it, not to mention an ex-boyfriend. Plus, I rationalized, the kind of men I liked would be drawn to my winning e-personality. But traffic was slow, and when I finally checked out my competition I could see why. I had vaguely envisaged a virtual dating universe with two planets: Men and Me. But there were multitudes — hordes, even — of women vying for attention, women with an obvious lack of concern for all forms of modesty, physical and otherwise. I gave in, posted a photo, and, gratifyingly, my response rate soared.

Over the next 12 months I went on 30 dates with 24 men — teachers, lawyers, artists, students, programmers, journalists, stockbrokers, a doctor, a fireman and an ethnomusicologist who made me listen to the worst Elvis cover tune in history. None was insane. Most were decent and interesting, and some were fun to be with. In the process, I accumulated the following pearls of Internet-dating wisdom.

1. Get over your embarrassment. If you find this hard, just think of the guy who, having suffered an unrequited crush on me years before, unwittingly replied to my ad. Remember, too, that if someone saw you online it was because they were online too.

2. Accept that you will run into people you know, or at the very least people who know people you know. I was recognized by (and spent a lovely afternoon with) a man I’d last seen in Grade 4 homeroom. Another guy was a childhood friend of a former co-worker with whom I’d lost touch.

3. Don’t lie. I was astonished to discover that some men are as vain about their height as some women are purported to be about their age. Please note: five-foot-seven is not the same as five-foot-four, and most women can spot the difference immediately.

4. Limit your initial contact, then meet as soon as possible. Your potential for disappointed expectations is directly proportionate to how much time you’ve invested. You will avoid a lot of awkward silences by meeting while you’re still corresponding as strangers — which, no matter how protracted and intimate your exchanges, is what you are.

5. Don’t discuss past online experiences, especially if they’re negative. One man described how he’d cruelly confronted a woman who hadn’t indicated beforehand that she was “unbelievably fat.” Check, please.

6. In a similar vein, do not bring up medical oddities or past surgical procedures on the first date, especially when they involve such body parts as the scrotum. And if you feel you must describe in graphic detail how you accidentally severed certain extremities, then had them surgically reattached, at least wait until the plates have been cleared.

7. Lastly, err on the side of generosity. I’m all for paying my share — heck, I’ll happily foot the bill — but there’s nothing more unattractive than being told you owe $2.75 plus tip for that half-pint of beer. Unless it’s being told you owe $50 for dinner at a place you would never have chosen on a date you were led to believe was the other person’s treat. Enough said.

So was the experiment a success? If meeting someone is the true measure, then I suppose not. But I don’t see it as a failure; if anything, I’ve come out of the experience with a better understanding of what I want and what I have to offer. I stopped because I began to feel like I had a part-time job, but I haven’t ruled out trying it again. And aside from the man who compared my neighbourhood to a trailer park, I can happily confirm that there are good single men out there.

Most importantly, though, being single has ceased to feel like a label I’ve unwillingly been branded with. Instead, it feels overwhelmingly like a choice.

Leave a comment

Filed under Personal writing


This is the home of Gillian Burnett’s professional writing portfolio. Here you’ll find samples of opinion columns, reporting, movie and book reviews Gillian has written for such publications as The Vancouver Sun, The Province, National Post, and To view a category, choose from the list on the right-hand side of this page. Thanks for visiting.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized