NON-FICTION: THE MURDER OF KNOWLEDGE

Published June 13, 2021
A display at the British Museum of clay tablets that formed part of seventh century Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s great library | Wikimedia Commons
A display at the British Museum of clay tablets that formed part of seventh century Assyrian king Ashurbanipal’s great library | Wikimedia Commons

We should all see attacks on books as an ‘early warning’ signal that attacks on humans cannot be far behind.” — Richard Ovenden

This line pretty much sums up the arguments presented by Richard Ovenden in Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack. One seldom comes across a treatise full of cogent arguments and detailed history of the topic under discussion. Reading this tome, in many places you will feel a shiver down your spine, for it is not just a history of book-burnings over the ages.

It is an indictment of those who have been advocates of banning ideas and censoring thoughts. To say that Ovenden has done a marvellous job by compiling and explaining the motives behind book-burnings would be an understatement. He has explored the very essence of knowledge and how authoritarian regimes and their lackeys feel threatened by it. The author has described and discussed why knowledge comes under attack whenever a dominant force takes absolute control; and how it executes its planned — and at times random — attacks on the sources of educational value.

By destroying knowledge that belongs to people, the perpetrators of such crimes exert their power over the masses, the persecuted and the subjugated. The battle begins with the control of knowledge as armed forces and their backers align themselves to the commanding authority. Once they are able to establish their control, the next step is to destroy any fountain of ideas that may be in the shape of articles, books, columns, discussion points, essays, fiction — even entire libraries. For them, it is vital to stop the flow of information and, by doing so, they think they can turn the tide of time.

Since Ovenden is director of the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, he is perhaps the best person to take us on a journey spanning continents and millennia. This journey starts from Mesopotamia and takes us through the 1933 bonfires ignited by the Nazis, which heralded that attacks on humans were not far. Ovenden’s book is a treasure trove of fascinating facts about the intentions of authoritarian bodies and dictatorial regimes which have been targeting diverse ideas over the centuries. This book inspires us to challenge such tendencies in society for the sake of preservation of knowledge for future generations.

But this is not simply a tale of those who burned books. It is also a saga of antiquaries and archaeologists, who put their own lives at stake to safeguard ancient pieces of information that came under attack. It is also a narration of archivists who made efforts to hide their painstakingly assembled archives from the eyes of impending predators. The book also highlights the courage of freedom fighters, who were not fighting for freedom alone; many fought for freedom of expression and for the liberty to share their ideas without intimidation or threat of persecution.

The Bodleian Libraries director writes a work of magisterial sweep to trace the history and motivations behind book-burning over millennia

Librarians who held their collections dear to their hearts and poets who composed stanzas praising new ideas and propagating new knowledge, all feature in Burning the Books. Ovenden is precise and clear when he dilates upon the importance of books and their survival. He is of a firm opinion that just increasing the digital existence of books is not enough, as digitisation itself is prone to distortion and manipulation. He advocates for physical preservation as much as he is in favour of digital copies. He doesn’t see the talk about an end to hard copies pleasing.

The author equates the survival of books and knowledge with the survival of civilisation itself. Interestingly, those who destroy knowledge are the ones who also chant slogans of anti-corruption. They try to justify bans and censorship under the guise of fighting against decadence and corruption. In the Berlin of 1933, it was Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels who gave a rousing speech at the bonfire of books and said: “No to decadence and moral corruption! Yes to decency and morality in family and state!” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Just recall how, across time and space in 1980s Pakistan, Gen Ziaul Haq stressed on family and morality.

Ovenden describes in chilling detail how bonfires of books were ignited across Germany, and it didn’t take long thereafter for the Nazis to establish concentration camps and gas chambers to exterminate innocent citizens who were in no position to put up any strong resistance against the Nazi onslaught. To avoid such occurrences in the future, Ovenden tries to convince us that “knowledge can be vulnerable, fragile and unstable” and, if we are unable to defend knowledge, ultimately we will not be able to defend civilisation, or life itself. And history offers testimony to this.

As the custodian of over 13 million printed volumes across the 28 libraries that form the Bodleian in Oxford, Ovenden augments his love for books through his documentation of the history of defence and destruction of knowledge. He particularly exposes oppressive regimes which try to “sanitise the history of oppressive rule”, such as officials in South Africa’s apartheid regime destroying documents on a massive scale. Behind the banning and burning of books, there may be invading forces as much as those who rule without the consent of their people. There may be occupying forces as much as the forces of obscurantism that oppressive rulers promote within a society.

Burning the Books also details the atrocities of colonial powers when they took away invaluable knowledge in the shape of books and scrolls, and that has been true from the times of Ashurbanipal, the seventh century king of Assyria who filled his royal library “not just by scribal copying, but also by taking knowledge from neighbouring states.” In the words of Ovenden, “these acts of forced collection are perhaps the earliest forerunner of what we now call displaced or migrated archives ... a practice that has been taking place for millennia.”

After discussing the destruction of Ashurbanipal’s royal library at the fall of Nineveh by the Babylonians, Ovenden takes us to the rise and fall of Alexandria, the archetypal library of the Western imagination, often referred to as “the greatest library ever assembled by the great civilisations of the ancient world.”

Ovenden does not agree with the version of history in which the blame for the destruction of the great library of Alexandria was put on the shoulders of Muslims under the second caliph of Islam. Perhaps the destruction was gradual and continued for many decades, or even centuries. Most probably, it involved multiple calamities and fires rather than destruction in one fell swoop.

Then, the description of libraries during the Golden Age of Islam is also impressive. “…according to the 13th century encyclopaedist Yaqut al Hallawi, the first paper mill in Baghdad was established CE 794-5, and enough paper was produced there for the bureaucrats to replace their parchment and papyrus records ... This mass availability of paper ... enabled Muslims to develop a sophisticated book culture; as a result, libraries, paper sellers and booksellers became a common sight in Baghdad where traders in books and paper were renowned as men of learning. This culture soon spread to other cities across the Islamic world.

“From Islamic Spain to the Abbasid kingdom in Iraq, libraries sprang up. There were great libraries in Syria and Egypt, over 70 libraries in Islamic Spain, and 36 in Baghdad alone, the first public collection in this great city being assembled during the reign of al Mansur (754-775), the founder of Baghdad or his successor Harun al Rashid (786-809).”

This book is pleasant when it talks about the accumulation of knowledge, but becomes stressful reading when it describes its wanton destruction.

The reviewer is an academic and holds a PhD from the University of Birmingham, UK. He tweets @NaazirMahmood

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack
By Richard Ovenden
John Murray, UK
ISBN: 978-1529378764
308pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 13th, 2021

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