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.