cover image Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge

Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge

Richard Ovenden. Belknap, $29.95 (320p) ISBN 978-0-674-24120-6

Ovenden, director of the Bodleian Libraries of Oxford University, debuts with a wide-ranging and thought-provoking account of efforts to destroy, neglect, or conceal books, archives, private papers, government documents, and other records. Ovenden describes the May 10, 1933, burning of thousands of “un-German” books by pro-Nazi students in Berlin and attacks by German troops in WWI and WWII on the Louvain University library in Belgium, as well as the targeting of the Library of Congress by the British in the War of 1812 and the destruction of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina by the Serbs in 1992. Discussions of the burning of Lord Byron’s memoir and Philip Larkin’s diaries by their literary executors and loved ones feel somewhat tangential, but Ovenden’s account of the destruction and removal of government archives from Iraq during the Second Gulf War, thereby limiting access to crucial information on the modern history of the country, is eye-opening and alarming. Even more troublesome, according to Ovenden, are the vast quantities of information currently held at the whim of a few global tech giants. He stuffs the narrative with intriguing arcana, and counterbalances the grim rundown of dangers posed to cultural heritage with profiles of librarians and archivists working to opposite ends. The result is an engrossing and informative portrait of how important it is to preserve and protect knowledge. (Nov.)