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16 September 2020

The history of book burning

A new study of the destruction of knowledge explores how societies depend on fragile archives. 

By Erica Wagner

It must be the case that Richard Ovenden’s new work was completed before the world found itself in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, so some chapters in Burning the Books seem eerily prescient. “The idea that information must be diffused and made available to the public if government was to be open to correction also began to be understood,” he writes of 17th-century England, when prominent intellectuals promoted the collection of social statistics to stabilise governmental structures and ensure the prosperity and contentment of the population. He goes on to address the Bills of Mortality for London, documents listing the number of deaths and analysing the causes of them. As the diaries of Samuel Pepys confirm, citizens used that information to manage and modify their own behaviour – most notably in 1665 and 1666, when London was in the grip of the bubonic plague. “This end of the town every day grows very bad of the plague,” Pepys wrote on 29 June, 1665. “The Mortality bill is come to 267, which is about 90 more than the last: and of these, but four in the City – which is a great blessing to us.”

So Pepys, at home in the City precincts of Seething Lane, felt the blessing of relative safety; as perhaps did citizens far from the East Midlands as they saw Leicester go into local lockdown in late June after a spike in coronavirus cases there. Our safety depends not only on our exposure to the virus but on how much we trust the information supplied to us, and how we are able to access that information. In these first decades of the 21st century, we seem beset by a generalised corruption of information, in part because we are so overwhelmed by the stuff. In a typical minute last year, Ovenden writes, around the world 18.1 million text messages were sent, 87,500 people were tweeting, and 390,000 apps were downloaded. How to tell information from “fake news” is an urgent problem brought even more sharply into focus by a pandemic that has already cost more than 900,000 lives across the globe. But as Ovenden shows in this wide-ranging and informative book, questions concerning the preservation and dissemination of information, the wars over who controls it, saves it, destroys it, are nothing new.

Ovenden has been Librarian at the Bodleian in Oxford since 2014: he is the 25th holder of that title. The library was founded by Sir Thomas Bodley (his “raffish charm”, writes Ovenden, is apparent in the 16th-century portrait that hangs in the new Weston Library) following the destruction wrought by the Reformation; Bodley’s contemporary Francis Bacon described the library as “an ark to save learning from the deluge”.

The Reformation was “one of the worst periods in the history of knowledge”, Ovenden writes; hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed as the monasteries and religious orders that held them were dissolved. Bodley intended his library to be accessible not just to members of the university but to “the whole republic of the learned”. He tried to future-proof his creation by entering into an agreement with the Stationers’ Company of London, meaning every book published by its members would be deposited in the new library.

The destruction not only of literary treasures but of vital records did not stop in the 16th century, of course, and nor did it begin then. Ovenden opens with the wrecking of the great Neo-Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s library at Nineveh in the 7th century BCE, and his tale stretches right into the present. The book had its beginnings in a piece Ovenden wrote for the Financial Times about the Windrush scandal – the revelation that landing cards documenting the arrival into the UK of immigrants from Caribbean countries in the years after the Second World War had been destroyed by the Home Office, leading to the wrongful deportation of at least 83 British citizens. The destruction of the documents, Ovenden wrote, “indicates at best a failure of sound management inside the Home Office, and at worst a culture of callous disregard towards certain categories of Britons”. The preservation of knowledge, as Ovenden reminds us in Burning the Books, is vital to an open, healthy society, “as indeed it has been since the beginning of our civilisation”.

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Perhaps the reader’s chronological distance might prevent them from being too cut up about the fate of Ashurbanipal’s clay tablets, but as the book moves along it is impossible not to be startled and horrified by what one might too easily call wanton destruction: Ovenden’s whole point, however, is that most of the time the destruction is not wanton but purposeful, a vigorous effort to erase culture. The “Paper Brigade” was a group of Jewish intellectuals in Vilnius in Lithuania who were forced by the Nazis to dismantle the Strashun Library, perhaps the first Jewish public library in the world. Led by the scholar Herman Kruk – once director of the Grosser Library in Warsaw – the group sabotaged the Nazi effort as best they could, and managed to smuggle thousands of books, and tens of thousands of printed documents, into the Vilna ghetto where they could be hidden. But that was, and is, a drop in the ocean: as Ovenden notes, it is estimated that in the dozen years of Nazi dominance, from 1933 to 1945, more than 100 million books were destroyed.

Perhaps even more than libraries, national archives stitch the fabric of a society together. Ovenden contrasts what happened to the archives of East Germany’s state security organisation, the Stasi, with those of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party after his overthrow in 2003. After the Berlin Wall came down, the Stasi’s archives remained in Berlin and have now been accessed by more than seven million people; the Ba’ath Party archives were taken from Iraq and are now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. This was meant to be a short-term arrangement, but as yet the documents have not been returned to Iraq. “Has the continued absence of the Iraqi archives prolonged the healing of that society?” Ovenden asks. He provides no easy answers; the strength of this book is in the questions it raises. He devotes a whole chapter to the challenges digital memory and archiving present, and whether we are in danger of handing over responsibility for cultural memory to companies such as Facebook, Apple, Microsoft and Google.

Ovenden grew up in Kent: his passion for libraries was conceived in Deal’s public library. He reminds us that it was only in 1964 that the Public Libraries and Museums Act made it a duty for local authorities to provide libraries; in the age of austerity, the system is in trouble. In 2018-19, there were 3,583 public libraries in the UK compared with 4,356 in 2009-10: 773 have closed. “There is nothing more to the credit of a library than that every man finds in it what he seeks,” wrote the 17th-century French librarian and scholar Gabriel Naudé. Richard Ovenden is a passionate advocate of that view: despite the tales of wrecking and pillage that fill his book, it’s clear that he is by nature an optimist, calling out to the better angels of our nature to fight for the preservation of what makes us who we are.

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack
Richard Ovenden
John Murray, 320pp, £20

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