Tuesday, October 6, 2009


The 2nd photo above shows books covered with mud at a school in Metro Manila after the recent typhoon which flooded the Philippines with as much as 36" of rain. The image of so many ruined books brought up thoughts of more purposeful destruction. The subject of biblioclasm - a word I have just learned this morning - is taken up in fiction by both Rod Serling and Ray Bradbury. In Bradbury's futuristic novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), books are outlawed and burned by firefighters. (To hear Bradbury read the book, click here.) In the episode of The Twilight Zone entitled "Time Enough at Last" (1959), a voracious reader who works at a bank takes a break in the vault with a book and thus survives a nuclear bomb blast. His spirits are raised when he finds the contents of the local library scattered on the steps and realizes he will have all the time he wants to read them, but those hopes are dashed minutes later when he shatters his thick glasses. (For scenes from the episode set to the song "Time" by Pink Floyd, click here.)
But the deliberate destruction of books is more than a mere plot device. Two examples that spring to mind are the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria (artist's rendering of imagined interior above) and the book-burning by the Nazis. The Royal Library in Egypt is thought to have been established in the 3rd century B.C. and to have been a center of scholarship for centuries. Exactly when and by whom it was burned to the ground have been a matter of speculation, with the blame for partial or complete destruction being placed on Roman emperor Julius Caesar (1oo B.C.-44 B.C.) during war with Ptolemy XIII in 48 B.C., the attack of Roman emperor Aurelian (214-275) in the 3rd c. A.D., the orders of Christian emperor Theodosius I (?-412) in 391 A.D., and the Muslim conquest in 642 A.D. The burning of books deemed heretical or threatening by authorities, which is an act of mass censorship, has an even longer history that continues to this day. It has been carried out by Roman and Chinese emperors, early Christians and Spanish Inquisitors, rabbis and caliphs, German Imperialists and Nazis, Russian Tsars and American politicians...the list goes on and on, and continues with a change in form, as some goverments suppress electronic texts. The entire subject has been taken on by Fernando Baez in his book (which I haven't read yet), A Universal History of the Destruction of Books (2008).

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