Blog All Dog-Eared Pages: A Universal History of the Destruction of Books

May 14, 2010

Fernando Báez is the director of Venezuela’s National Library and the author of, among other things, a history of the lost library of Alexandria. In 2003 he was sent to Baghdad as part of a cultural commission to evaluate the damage down to Iraq’s—and the world’s—cultural heritage, having previously performed a similar, and similarly devastating, task in the former Yugoslavia.


The result of 13 years labour, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (trans. Alfred MacAdam, Atlas & Co., 2008) is a compendium of bibliocausts, a necessary reckoning of not only what we have lost, but of the myriad of reasons and excuses employed by biblioclasts. It is far from the first book on the subject, and it will not be the last, but it is a powerful miscellany, exhausting and devastating, and, in the author’s words, “in its way, an anthology of possible books”—all those lost, forgotten, half-remembered, sacrificed and burned. (In an act of sympathy, my own copy was nearly destroyed by a rainstorm, a non-waterproof rucksack, and a hearty if misplaced disbelief in weather forecasts.)

Báez attempts to disclaim any real attempt at universality, but his text often notes both the recurring figures and the repeating history of his subject:

Like so many bibliophiles, Augustus was a biblioclast. Pliny credits the emperor with saving the scrinia, the cylindrical containers containing the protected manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid. […] Yet Augustus destroyed thousands of works for reasons of state. In the year 8 CE he forbade the circulation of Ovid’s Art of Love (it was burned in Florence by Girolamo Savonarola in 1497, and yet again in England in 1599, when the bishops of Canterbury and London ordered the burning of the translation made by the dramatist and spy Christoper Marlowe). (p 76)

The fall of the western Roman Empire thwarted the patient labour of conservation. Alaric and his barbarian hordes took Rome in 410. For a week, beginning on August 24, the city was pitilessly sacked. Papyri were used to illuminate orgies. As his troops were burning libraries, one of the Gothic chieftains suggested leaving them to the enemy to distract them from military exercises. Montaigne, the source of this anecdote, recounted it as if it were something extraordinary; we know the sad pattern is repeated throughout history. (p 82)

Monte Cassino in Italy was destroyed several times during its long history. Its stupendous collection of books was diminished by various circumstances and reduced to debris. Around 585, the Lombards captured the monastery and destroyed some rare books. In the ninth century, the Saracens burned the library. Giovanni Boccaccio, who visited the library, sadly noted dozens of books littering the floor. More recently, in World War II, the Allies bombed the monastery to rubble, although its library had been removed to the Vatican, reportedly by Nazi officers. (p 104)

Dog Ears

L’enfer of the Bibliotheque Nationale is not the only forbidden section to acquire that name. Báez himself finds a broken-down copy of Lorca’s poetry in a Madrid bookstore, inscribed “Forbidden Book, Asturias”:

In October 1934, in Asturias, a popular uprising metamorphosed into a kind of Commune, unleashing a ferocious repression in which any impartial observer could detect the personality of General Francisco Franco and his followers. Police agencies destroyed the books in more than 257 libraries for the poor […] The Commission for the Cleansing of Libraries eliminated hundreds of texts until 1939. They confiscated all books defined as pornographic, revolutionary, or harmful to public morality. Those works that were not burned were placed in a section called Hell. (p 202)

For Báez, the elimination of books is concomitant with the eradication of ideas, which are cultures and societies; and he frequently and powerfully identifies how the horrors visited upon books are visited upon people too. The violent death of Hypatia, “the first woman put to death for conducting scientific investigations” at the hands of a mob is powerfully rendered—too powerfully to reproduce here—in order to underline how its intention was “simply the total annihilation of everything Hypatia symbolised as a woman.” (p 87)

In the monastery of Saint Gall, Switzerland, attacked in 926, the Huns attempted to slaughter the monks and set fire to the monastery, which would have meant the end of thousands of carefully preserved works. The Swabian woman in charge of the library, Wiborada, had a vision. What she saw we don’t know, but the afternoon of the day before the attack, which began at dawn on May 1, she buried the books. According to the chronicle, the besieged overcame their attackers. However, the fire consumed the monastery and Wiborada’s library. Mutilated, she was lying on top of a mound of earth where the books were later discovered intact. Her act won her sainthood; she is patron saint of all bibliophiles and the first woman formally canonised by the church. (p 105)

Physchoanalyst Gérard Haddad sees in the book “the materialisation of the symbolic Freudian father cannibalistically devoured.” With this premise—a work is the father of a given people—he assumes two positions to explain book destruction. If someone eats a book, he does so to receive its generative gift, its power to engender. If on the other hand someone burns a book, he does so to negate its paternity, reject its function of being a father: “The auto-da-fe acts out in veiled but extreme form the hatred and rejection of the father” […] Book hatred, says Haddad, often leads to racism, since racism negates another culture’s colour, understood as the other culture’s act of generation. (p 166)

The assassination of Sergei Kirov in 1934 supposedly at the instigation of Joseph Stalin, was the beginning of an era of persecution. […] More than four million people were put on trial and 800,000 executed. There were more than a thousand proscribed writers. Yevgeny Zamyatin, who died in exile, went so far as to say: “In Russia, what honours a writer most is to have his books in the catalogue of forbidden titles.” (p 239)


Kemal Bakaršić, the chief librarian of the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina (founded in 1888), wrote of its destruction:

The fire lasted into the next day. The sun was obscured by the smoke of books, and all over the city sheets of burned paper, fragile pages of ash grey, floated down like a dirty black snow. Catching a page you could feel its heat, and for a moment read a fragment of text in a strange kind of black and grey negative, until, as the heat dissipated, the page melted to dust in your hand. (p 253)

Many and strange kinds of books are detailed:

One of the causes of book disappearance, especially of longer works, was the practice of making epitomes, very popular after the third century CE. These were the precursors of our Reader’s Digest abbreviated editions. With time, the, the epitomes became absolutely necessary because they alluded to books that no longer existed. (p 90)

When the Chinese set fire to the British legation in Beijing in 1900, the wind spread the fire toward the Han Lin Yuan (Imperial Library), the most important intellectual centre in all China. Lancelot Giles, son of the sinologist Herbert Allen Giles, witnessed the events and describes the panic among the scholars about the burning of the legendary Yong Lo Da Dia, an encyclopaedia with 22,937 divisions covering all things human and divine in 370 million words. Lancelot threw himself into the flames, and in a laconic confession said: “I saved section 13,345 by myself.”

It was an almost useless act because, in an early sort of hypertext, all the sections referred to others. It was said that in order to read a paragraph it was necessary to know all the dialects of Chinese and venture into the exploration of astronomy and zoology. When it was finished, scholars compared it to the universe, because it was assumed no one would ever read it through. (p 233)


The predominant response to Báez’s extraordinary book is exhaustion: incomprehension at so much, so utterly destroyed. A history that repeats and repeats the sins of its ancestors, endlessly finding new ways to ravage an endlessly reproductive source.

Borges emerges as the writer most sympathetic to this burning of time, of memory. A character in his novella “The Congress” notes (p 196) that “every few centuries, it’s necessary to burn the Library of Alexandria”—but Báez, summarising another line of Borges, counterbalances this with the notion that “all book destruction is useless. People will again write the same works because the themes are in our souls.”

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