Venezuelan historian Báez spent what must have been 12 depressing years assembling this horrific chronicle of the centuries-long assault on human memory.
Beginning and ending in Baghdad 2003, with a description of U.S. soldiers standing idly by while mobs looted and burned the National Library (perhaps one million books lost), the author’s English-language debut moves determinedly from ancient times to the present. Biblioclasm is not a new phenomenon, he demonstrates: For reasons varying from invasion and vandalism to pure viciousness, more than 80 percent of Egyptian literature has been lost, only seven of Sophocles’s 120 plays survive and millions of ancient tablets and scrolls have vanished. Contrary to popular conception, Báez notes, it is not often the ignorant who order and execute the destruction of books and libraries. It is instead the powerful, sometimes even the highly educated, who insist that their truth be the only one and all others must perish. His text roams the world, revisiting bibliocausts on all continents in all centuries. (It also covers the fictional destruction of books, with a nod to Don Quixote as the first to deal with this issue and several references to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.) Emerging religions have their works destroyed and then, when they supplant the original destroyers, commence destructions of their own. Romans destroyed Christian documents; Christians destroyed the Romans’; Catholics burned Protestant manuscripts; Henry VIII eradicated monastic libraries in England; and so on. Invading Spaniards destroyed written records in the New World; Spanish Fascists burned their own country’s history. Nazis and Communists and American atomic bombs have done their worst. Báez pauses occasionally to consider such natural disasters as earthquakes, floods and flames, or the damage wrought by beetles, worms and acidic paper. These asides serve merely to remind us that books’ greatest enemy stares back at us from history’s mirror.
A sobering reminder of just how deep-seated is the instinct to destroy other people’s truths.