Literary vandalism and erasing communities | Sunday Observer

Literary vandalism and erasing communities

25 April, 2021

Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden, published by John Murray Press (2020) (£20)

The Digital Museum, which organises excellent discussions on a range of subjects in humanities, posted a new event scheduled to be held in January 2021. The theme of the talk, ‘Burning the Books’, intrigued me to listen. The talk was by Richard Ovenden, who is currently serving as the Chief Librarian at the Bodley’s, University of Oxford, and the book’s author. The book is about the significance of preserving knowledge and the importance of libraries and archives in doing so. It is a book about the destruction of libraries and archives and how these institutions have fought back. The book charts 3000 years of literal vandalism. The author navigates the reader through a journey from the ancient civilisation where clay tablets were preserved in Mesopotamian institutions to the modern-day digital age where the storing and distribution of knowledge has been commercialised. While the work is not directly related to the region, it refers to destroying books and libraries worldwide, which reminds me of the burning of the Jaffna library in 1981.

Today and throughout history, libraries and archives all around the world face multiple threats. On one hand, they are targets of groups, individuals, and the state in erasing the truth and eradicating specific aspects of the past. On the other hand, these institutes are challenged by underfunding due to the commercialisation of knowledge with new technologies, privatised storage, and transmitting the knowledge in digital form.

That chapter titled, ‘Cracked Clay under the Mounds’ starts with the famous story, Anabasis or Persian Expedition by ancient Greek general and a historian Xenophon. At the time Xenophon wrote this story, the Greek world had a vibrant book culture where libraries had played an important role. These ancient civilizations such as Egypt, Mycenae, Persia, Greece, and Rome had a strong writing culture that existed alongside oral communication. Imperial powers discovered this ancient knowledge and some of the earliest libraries in the 19th century. The chapter discusses how ancient civilisations understood the importance of accumulating and preserving knowledge by giving the example of libraries and archives of Mesopotamia, especially the library of Ashurbanipal.

The legendary library of Alexandria is the focus of the sec ond chapter, ‘A Pyre of Papyrus.’ The author describes the library, its sections, and why it had become one of the most outstanding achievements of the classical world. It was a place not only where knowledge was kept and stored, but also a place where scholars came to access that knowledge and had vibrant discussions. Questioning the popular narrative of its destruction, the author discusses the multiple stories revolving around the incident. He states, while it is true that the library was in flames at one point, there was a gradual process of neglect and growing ignorance that led to the final destruction of the library. Adding to the same argument, he makes a strong case about how papyrus (as texts at the time were mainly written on papyrus) can be naturally fragile and easily get decayed due to the humid weather.

In August 1914, German troops entered the Louvain library in Belgium and set it on fire using petrol. It had over three hundred thousand volumes in its collection and a group of remarkable collections of international quality. The library was the heart of the Belgian cultural identity. It was an act of political outrage. The incident triggered global attention, and scholars accused Germans of deliberately targeting the intellectual heart of the Louvain University. The Germans however claimed that the library was set on fire due to Belgian resistance. The library was burnt again and bombed by German troops on May 16 1940, during the second world war, and the reconstructed building after the first destruction was primarily destroyed.

Books were always a central part of the Jewish religion and culture. Jewish people, as well as their books, were targets of the Nazi regime. As per available estimations, over 100 million books were destroyed during 12 years of Nazi dominance in Germany from 1933 to the second world war. Jewish books were publicly destroyed, confiscated, and subjected to deliberate acts of theft attempting to map and understand the Jewish culture that Nazis were aiming to eradicate.

The most organised book-burning occurred on 10th May 1933. It was a bonfire which was held on Unter den Linden, Berlin’s most important thoroughfare. Around 40 000 students marched to the center carrying books, and around the fire, young men were standing in rows giving the Heil Hitler salute. Hitler’s minister of propaganda delivered a rousing speech stating, ‘The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you … You do well to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past’. Similar events occurred in ninety other locations across the country.

The burning of books cannot be resembled with any other form of destruction, as it destroys the memory and identity of any community. The burning of the Jaffna library on 31st May 1981 had similar consequences. While Richard Ovenden’s book does not refer to the burning of the Jaffna library as a case, the book gives a strong departing point to reread the unfortunate events in the Jaffna peninsula as signs of a looming civil war that emerged later and lasted for several decades.