It’s both amusing and a little bit touching that a lifelong librarian has written a book in which librarians are the heroes. None wears a cape; they do not cast aside their owlish spectacles and transform themselves into muscled hulks. Rather, it is their very earnestness, diligence and scholarship – along with their willingness to risk their lives to protect and preserve the truth – that has the reader cheering them on.
These are the stars of Burning the Books, a deeply engaging and timely “history of knowledge under attack” by Richard Ovenden, who since 2014 has rejoiced in the title of Bodley’s Librarian: meaning that he is the 25th person to run the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford. He starts with ancient Mesopotamia and ends in Facebook and Twitter, detailing specific episodes rather than attempting a comprehensive history, charting the apparently never-ending threat to the recorded past. He dissects the methods and motives of those who have sought to burn, bury or delete the texts through which the story of the human race – its wanderings, discoveries and longings – has been documented. But he is careful to lavish special attention, the admiration of a kindred spirit, on those who stood in the way.
We learn of the library staff who, along with the people of Sarajevo – Serbs, Croats, Jews and Muslims – formed a human chain to rescue books when the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina came under deliberate and sustained artillery fire from Serbian military positions in August 1992. Ovenden notes that the shells aimed at the library were incendiaries, “designed to raise fire rapidly on impact”. The librarians tried to save what they could from the burning building, but it was no good: Serb marksmen picked off the firefighters, even targeting them with anti-aircraft guns. “Ray Bradbury reminded us in 1953 of the temperature at which paper burns – Fahrenheit 451 – but an entire library takes a long time to be destroyed,” Ovenden writes. In Sarajevo’s case, it took three days. A Bosnian poet said that afterwards ash from the burnt volumes fell on the city like “black birds”.
The Serbs’ purpose was not mysterious. “Cleansing” present-day Bosnia of Muslims was not enough; they sought to erase the evidence of a past Muslim presence in the country. Beyond the main library in Sarajevo, Serb forces targeted local archives, destroying land registries with particular zeal. Gravestones were bulldozed too, as if “to eradicate even the suggestion that Muslims had been buried in Bosnian soil”. Those who resisted understood what was at stake. Ovenden quotes the Sarajevo fire chief, Kenan Slinic, who when asked why he and his brigade were risking their lives to save books and paper replied, “Because I was born here and they are burning a part of me.”
Inevitably, the notion of book-burning jolts a very specific memory in the European imagination and this book opens with it. It describes the May night in 1933 when 40,000 watched a bonfire on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s main street, as the flames devoured thousands of books written by Jews and others deemed un-German, most of them gay or communist or both. “You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past,” Josef Goebbels told the book-burners. “This is a strong, great and symbolic deed.”
That Berlin bonfire does indeed stand as a symbol, or perhaps more accurately, as a harbinger. For where books led, people would follow. The Third Reich destroyed six million Jewish lives and, by Ovenden’s estimate, 100m books. As with the shelling of the Sarajevo library, this was no collateral damage: the Nazis established a team whose sole task was the seizure and, usually, destruction of Jewish texts.
Yet here too, Ovenden has a heroic tale to tell. He devotes a chapter to the extraordinary story of the ‘Paper Brigade’, the dozen Jews corralled in the ghetto of Vilna – now Vilnius in Lithuania – who were forced to assist the Nazis as they collected, sorted and shipped off Jewish books and manuscripts. (The Nazi plan was to save key texts that might be used in a future Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question – a sort of Museum of the Extinct Jewish People.) The Paper Brigade used their position not to assist the Nazi endeavour but to thwart it, rescuing and hiding whatever they could, whether handwritten letters received from Leo Tolstoy or drawings by Marc Chagall. It is a story of ingenuity and deep courage. A postwar postscript yields yet another hero: the Lithuanian librarian who had to save these Jewish literary treasures from a new threat of destruction, this time from the Soviets. Dr Antanas Ulpis stashed the documents in a church, even stuffing them inside the pipes of the organ, where they remained for four decades.
Still, Ovenden is clear that the 20th-century tyrants’ desire to destroy knowledge was part of a long tradition. He describes Henry VIII’s war on the monasteries and the trashing of precious books that came with it. Tens of thousands of texts were burned or broken up and sold as scrap, as the monarch set about ridding the kingdom of the taint of Rome. Similar violence was done to the written word across Reformation Europe.
In Ovenden’s telling, it’s the ideological desire to erase a contrary view or a despised people that is the usual source of danger to books. But it’s not the only one. He recounts the familiar but still gripping story of Franz Kafka, who ordered his work burnt, only for his executor to defy his wishes; and of Philip Larkin, whose request that his diaries be “burned unread” was scrupulously honoured. He also casts a sceptical eye over Ted Hughes’s decision to destroy some of the papers of Sylvia Plath, suggesting that Hughes was trying to protect his own reputation rather than hers. He detects a similar self-serving motivation in the conduct of British colonial administrators, who as they left the territories they had ruled incinerated the records that might have incriminated them.
The sound of a warning vibrates through this book. Ovenden sets us straight about the great library of Alexandria: it was not destroyed by fire, but rather neglect. He calls it a “cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritisation and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge”.
But there is a contemporary menace greater even than complacency. Ovenden calls it the “digital deluge”: the sheer abundance of material that exists online. His chief worry is that so much data is stored in private hands, held by the tech giants of Google and Facebook. Since their purpose is commerce rather than the public good, they can hardly be trusted to act as custodians of human knowledge. He writes less about what might be as great a threat: the formats that grow obsolete and therefore illegible to future generations or the encrypted technologies that encourage policymakers and others to conduct their conversations via a medium that leaves no trace for posterity.
Above all, this is a book that takes a nightmare that haunts many of us – the notion of the past erased – and confirms that it is no fiction but rather a recurring reality. In the process, Ovenden stays true to his calling, reminding us that libraries and librarians are the keepers of humankind’s memories: without them, we don’t know who we are.
• Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden is published by John Murray (£20). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.