Burning Books

Here’s a great article by Ben Macintyre which introduced me to a new word – Biblioclasm – the deliberate destruction of books.

For the benefit of readers abroad who have to pay for access to Times articles I reproduce the two most interesting paragraphs below

Books are power. The founding of the great library at Alexandria in the 3rd century BC was done for reasons of politics as much as scholarship, for the Ptolemies were acutely aware of the strategic implications in monopolising literary knowledge. Caliph Omar, by contrast, is accused of taking the Taleban line after Muslims conquered Alexandria in 641 AD. When asked what to do with the books, he replied: “If what is written in them agrees with the Book of God, they are not required; if it disagrees, they are not desired. Destroy them therefore.” According to legend, the scrolls fuelled the furnaces of the city’s bath-houses for six months.

Book burning has always been shorthand for intellectual terrorism: kill a man, and you take his life; kill his books, and you take his cultural meaning for all posterity. The Romans called it damnatio memoriae, the eradication of all records of existence, the ultimate sanction. When the Germans set fire to the library at Louvain in 1914, destroying 300,000 priceless manuscripts, this was not simple barbarism but the policy of Shrecklichkeit, organised horror. It is said that when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1258 they used the city’s magnificent library to build a bridge across the Tigris; for days the waters ran black with ink.