A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern-Day Iraq
by Fernando Baez (translated into English by Alfred MacAdam).
This is an amazingly ambitious project, documenting the history of the destruction of books. It spans from “ancient Iraq” (Sumer) around 4000 BC to the chaos and looting in Iraq in 2003, and covers a lot of ground in between.
Of course, a book, no matter how valuable, can never compare to a human life, but still, one can’t help but have a sober pause to consider at the sheer volume of books that are lost, burned, eaten up by pests, and destroyed in other ways. The sweeping coverage of this book is actually quite amazing, even though, of course, it is not always very thorough.
It’s amazing, for instance, to see how little of ancient literature has been preserved, for as the author states, even “the most optimistic estimates calculate that 75 percent of ancient Greek literature, philosophy, and science has been lost”. It’s amazing to see how the ravages of war have wiped out hundreds upon hundred of libraries. It’s amazing to see with what rigor evil and wicked men have censored and destroyed books, attempting to weaken and subjugate people. The combined effect of over 6,000 years of destruction certainly leaves a pronounced impression in ones mind!
Whatever historical quibbles I may have with the book, and I do have a few, I appreciated it a lot. This book, translated from the Spanish text of its Venezuelan author, Fernando Baez, gives an astounding view of the dangerous lives that books live.
It is fitting to end this review with a quote that appears in this book, from Jorge Luis Borges:
“Of all man’s instruments, the most astonishing is, without any doubt, the book. The others are extensions of his body. The microscope, the telescope, are extensions of this eyes; the telephone an extensions of his voice; then we have the plow and the sword, extensions of his arm. But the book is something else: the book is an extension of memory and imagination.”
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