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A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez: A Review

A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF THE DESTRUCTION OF BOOKS: FROM ANCIENT SUMER TO MODERN IRAQ. Fernando Baez, translated by Alfred ´ MacAdam. New York: Atlas and Co., 2008, 355 pp., $25.00, ISBN-13: 978-1- 934633-01-4.

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Fernando Báez spent over a decade amassing a novelic encyclopedia of bibliocausty- from biblion “book” and from kaustos, the verbal adjective of kaiein which means “to burn”; the term coming into its own around the late 1970s. As he describes in the introduction to the work, his passion comes from his early childhood and his hometown of San Félix in Guayana, Venezuela. When he was between the ages of four and five, he would spend hours in the public library which he viewed “as a last refuge” (p.4) from “an honorable state of poverty.” (p.4) It was here that he would develop a passion beyond bibliophilia that served as his muse behind this work. This sprung when Báez witnessed his first bibliocaust  when the Caroni river wiped out his local library, “the object of [his] curiosity,” (p.5) like the Incan god Paricia who came and wiped out mankind in a flood.

Báez acknowledges that this work is incomplete in its present form, and at the outset welcomes revisions that will come by stating that “each new edition is an invitation to correction and amplification so that the book approaches the ideal, definitive history that perhaps will never exist.” (p.xii) It is evident that his passion will continue the development of this work, and that he is willing to pick up upon suggestions by his readers, such as a chapter on the fictional accounts of book burning.

The book itself deals with the mythos behind creation and destruction, and Báez weaves throughout the work an apocalyptic lamentation for the lost knowledge of human intellectual and cultural history. Part of his research for the book led him to conclude that “all civilizations… have postulated their origin and their end in a creation myth counterpoised to a destruction myth in a framework whose axis is the eternal return.” (p.7) Báez returns constantly to this theme, which he claims is “the best way to introduce [his speculation] to the reader,” (p.8) as though the destructive means of cultural annihilation are justified as a path to salvation; not that he believes this to be true, but that those who commit such acts do. Perhaps the best phrasing of this comes when he makes the claim that “The apocalyptic narrative projects the human situation and its anguish: in each of us, the origin and the end interact in inevitable process of creation and dissolution.” (p.9) This brings to mind, at least to this reader, the longstanding mythos behind the phoenix and the destruction of what was with the rebirth of something new.

The work seeks to be comprehensive, perhaps in a future edition, of all major periods of book destruction. This edition is broken down into three parts: The Ancient World, From Byzantium to the Nineteenth Century, and From the Twentieth Century to the Present. More will be explored on each section later. Báez is not the only writer to explore this topic. He writes with the same concern as Polastron (2007), Knuth (2003), & Raven (2004).

While recognizing that it is impossible to secure all of the books in existence, Báez forces us to think about how we preserve books, libraries, and other like spaces and their contents. He wants to understand why people and cultures burn books, and, as I have already mentioned, he seeks to explore this with an apocalyptic narrative. One of the questions that we should ask ourselves is how do we go about preserving our knowledge and cultural centers? How do we preserve the things on which information is stored, whether it be clay tablets, papyri, paper, or compact-disks? If destruction is bound to happen, how can we mitigate the consequences?

In the first part of his work, Báez explores the distant past. Some of the prominent chapters in this part include Greece, an entire chapter dedicated solely to the enigma of “The Library of Alexandria”, Eastern battles for empire in “China”, and the rise of the codex discussed in “Rome and Early Christianity.” He closes this part of the work with a chapter dedicated to “Oblivion and the Fragility of Books.” No work can suffer the ravages of time unaffected, and the very thing that made libraries of antiquity so sacred is what also led to their ruin, and with that the loss of knowledge. When a library of antiquity was lost, due to fire, flood, war or other causes, the works could not as easily be replaced for the infrastructure was not as adaptable and rapid as it is today.  

In the second part of his work, Báez explores a long stretch of time covering “Byzantium to the Nineteenth Century”. Examples of chapters in this section include: “Constantinople,” “The Islamic World,” “The Destruction of Pre-Hispanic Culture in the Americas,” “England,” and “Revolutions in France, Spain, and Latin America.” The last chapter, which seems out of place in this section, though very appropriate to the nature of the book itself, covers bibliocausts found in fictional works which was suggested to him by an “anonymous reader.” (p.188) Báez took on the challenge and created this work exploring twenty-four authors fictional dealings with the destruction of books; these authors include: Cervantes, Marlowe, Poe, H.G. Wells, H.P. Lovecraft, Tolkien, Bradbury, Borges, Eco, and Jan van Aken.  Another chapter in this part deals with “Fires, Wars, Mistakes, and Messiahs.” Báez makes a curious point here, particularly when he speaks about messiahs. One such “messiah” was Jacob Frank, an eighteenth century Jewish heretic who “found some disciples” and forced them to burn books.

In the last part of his work, Báez explores events that are seared in modern cultural memory covering the “Twentieth Century to the Present.” Topics in this part include events in “China and the Soviet Union,” “Spain, Chile, and Argentina,” the 2003 war in “Iraq” and particularly the looting of the Baghdad Archaeological Museum and the burning of the national library and archive, as well as the extensive and systematic bibliocide that took place throughout the second world war. Two of the other chapters that he explores in this section include ethnic rivalries and harm done, through no ill intent, but through the feeding by insects and the decomposition of modern paper and other publishing mechanisms.

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Intellectual history has been susceptible throughout time to forces that we can control and forces that we can not. Though there is nothing that can escape time, save God, there are ways that we can mitigate disasters. Báez seeks to keep a record of those disasters and, by shedding light on them, prevent the destruction of more (books). I believe that Báez seeks to open his audience’s eyes to what happens through the intentional and willful destruction of books. It is hard enough trying to maintain and preserve them without their willful elimination.

Though Báez does a masterful job in writing the book and drawing the reader into the narrative, there are other ways in which the organization of the work could be arranged to tell the story. For instance, the organization could be arranged geographically instead of chronologically. In this way, we could go on a Vernian world tour of bibliocausty and explore how different cultures have handled the loss and destruction of their culture. This is not to say that the chronological arrangement is not good, but that the same story could be arranged so we see the history of bibliocausty played out in different geographic zones. Can we see any difference in how different cultures sought out the damnatio memoriae of their adversaries?

Another possibility for the retelling of this story would be to create a digital companion with an ArcGIS story map for a visual story that could serve as a tour of this work. One way to retell this story would be to extract the information from the work into a file and overlay it onto a GIS map and thus bringing the narrative to life, on a global scale and in a geo-pictoral context, the major ramifications of what Báez has devoted much of his life’s work to.

The author’s work is never done, as everyday the news recounts some new tale of the evils that take place among men. One of the most prominent contemporary  examples stems from the rise of the Islamic State. This crisis could serve as an extended component of one of Báez’s current chapters, or as an entirely new chapter. It seems as though each new passing year sees another example of the unending destruction of books, and, as Báez has already stated, this book can continuously be expanded. Since the publication of this work in 2008, more examples of bibliocausty have taken place globally including the events in Ukraine, various parts of Africa, and the ongoing horrors brought about by the Islamic State. It is also possible to further extend the third part of his work to cover events such as the Vietnam War, the Iranian Revolution, and the burning of the Jaffna library in Sri Lanka during the midst of a civil war. That said, it is a great work, and worth reading by anyone who considers themselves a bibliophile, or has spent time relaxing in the pleasures of a library.

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