Burning the Books
A TIMES BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020
‘Burning the Books is fascinating, thought-provoking and very timely. No one should keep quiet about this library history’ IAN HISLOP
Opening with the notorious bonfires of ‘un-German’ and Jewish literature in 1933 that offered such a clear signal of Nazi intentions, Burning the Books takes us on a 3000-year journey through the destruction of knowledge and the fight against all the odds to preserve it.
Richard Ovenden, director of the world-famous Bodleian Library, explains how attacks on libraries and archives have been a feature of history since ancient times but have increased in frequency and intensity during the modern era. Libraries are far more than stores of literature, through preserving the legal documents such as Magna Carta and records of citizenship, they also support the rule of law and the rights of citizens. Today, the knowledge they hold on behalf of society is under attack as never before. In this fascinating book, he explores everything from what really happened to the Great Library of Alexandria to the Windrush papers, from Donald Trump’s deleting embarrassing tweets to John Murray’s burning of Byron’s memoirs in the name of censorship.
At once a powerful history of civilisation and a manifesto for the vital importance of physical libraries in our increasingly digital age, Burning the Books is also a very human story animated by an unlikely cast of adventurers, self-taught archaeologists, poets, freedom-fighters — and, of course, librarians and the heroic lengths they will go to preserve and rescue knowledge, ensuring that civilisation survives. From the rediscovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert, hidden from the Romans and lost for almost 2000 years to the medieval manuscript that inspired William Morris, the knowledge of the past still has so many valuable lessons to teach us and we ignore it at our peril.
A galvanising manifesto for the importance of physical libraries in our increasingly digital age * The Bookseller * Like an epic film-maker, Richard Ovenden unfolds vivid scenes from three millennia of turbulent history, to mount passionate arguments for the need to preserve the records of the past – and of the present. This urgent, lucid book calls out to us all to recognise and defend one of our most precious public goods – libraries and archives. — MARINA WARNER A magnificent book – timely, vital and full of the most incredible tales, a manifesto for our humanity and its archives — PHILIPPE SANDS A stark and important warning about the value of knowledge and the dangers that come from the destruction of books. Vital reading for this day and age. — PETER FRANKOPAN BURNING THE BOOKS is fascinating, thought-provoking and very timely. No one should keep quiet about this library history. — IAN HISLOP Both timely and authoritative…The subject of archives and libraries is one of permanent importance in the understanding a nation has of itself, and touches not only high politics but also life-and-death drama. I can think of no-one better qualified to write about it than Richard Ovenden. I enjoyed Burning the Books immensely. — PHILIP PULLMAN ‘Dangerous souvenirs’ is what Richard Ovenden calls the books salvaged by ex-monks under the nose of Henry VIII. Now as then, books need friends. This fascinating book will help to find them. — ALAN BENNETT
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