Work Title: Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History
Work Author(s): Lucien X. Polastron, author; Jon E. Graham, translator
372 pages, Hardcover $24.95
Reviewer: Peter Skinner
A near-encyclopedic history of the fires, looting, and other assaults that have destroyed or damaged many great libraries---public and private---may not strike many as a "must-read" book. But those who work through Books on Fire will find the richly detailed narrative amply rewarding. The French scholar Lucien X. Polastron analyzes the contexts and policies behind both the assembly and the destruction of libraries, starting in the third millennium BCE with Sumer and Egypt, and ending with Iraq in 2003 CE. A specialist in Chinese and Arab studies, Polastron has not stinted in addressing book production, collecting, and destruction in these two cultures.
Books, he points out, have near-sacred value; the Jewish, Hindu, Nordic, and Islamic traditions held that pre-Creation libraries existed---a food of divinity. Sadly, the mission-driven Noah threw his books ("the most ancient, the ancient, and the most recent") off the Ark to allow more animals to board. But the nurturing role of books and concern for their survival---two of Polastron's major themes---are, he notes, well-expressed by Ramesses II (1279-1213 BCE), whose "sacred library" bore a plaque stating: "House for Care of the Soul." It was situated within the Ramesseum of Thebes, the pharaoh's "Castle of Millions of Years." Invaders, rulers of other faiths, or even a hostile successor, decided the "soul" must be destroyed and time must start anew. Hence the worldwide record of library-wrecking. Qin Shi Huangdi ("First Emperor") burned all non-scientific works in 213 BCE; two centuries earlier, one Yang Shang had advised Duke Xiao to "burn the books so that the laws and ordinances can emerge."
Book-burning as policy never slackened, despite admonitions: the Arab historian al-Tabari (838--c. 920) wrote, "No matter what the case, one should never destroy a book without knowing what is inside it," and in 1510 the Protestant humanist Reuchlin opposed papal exhortations (frequent since 1210) to destroy Jewish doctrinal books by asking "How can we oppose what we do not understand?" In a shocking regression, when Charles V's army sacked Rome in 1527, von Burtenbach's troops bedded their horses on the Holy City archival documents. Ironically, only two years...