Rare Book Monthly

Articles - March - 2008 Issue

<i>People of the Book</i>: Survival and Responsibility

The British burn the Library of Congress in 1814.


by Renée Magriel Roberts

I was on eBay last night, searching for new antiquarian material. And, like every night, I saw innumerable lists of images that have been ripped out of their books. These are not just colorful botanical prints, but just about any kind of frontispiece, plate, or even in-text illustrations. Links from eBay stores lead one to other sites, which house tens of thousands of these images, bereft of text or context.

Bookbreaking used to be a nasty annoying activity, but now it has become a shortsighted, widely-practiced, for-profit-only pestilence in the book world, sadly supported by sites like eBay and ABE.

From my perspective, wanton bookbreaking is not much better than book burning, another tyrranical time-honored activity. At first, I naïvely did not understand why one would destroy libraries and burn books; it seemed a practice without profit, albeit one with a very long history. That is, until I realized book destruction is about the destruction of the spirit of a people, and it is about absolute control.

Incredibly, many of these events and sites have been virtually lost to history:

The Chinese have a long, long history of book destruction. In 213 BCE, Shi Huang (246-210 BCE), the founder of the Qin Dynasty burned all the Confucian texts, it is thought, to assure a shallow, uniformity of thinking (that is, uniformity with his thinking). Not to be outdone, Chairman Mao and his Red Guards continued the practice during his reign of terror. And how many books did the Chinese destroy when they invaded and laid waste to the monasteries of Tibet?

Nalanda (northern Bihar state, India), an international Buddhist university in the 12th century, home to over 9 million volumes, was sacked, it is thought, in Muslim raids. What would our civilization be like now if just this one university and library had survived?

The Vatican has for centuries led the way in book destruction, burning not only books, but their authors. Happily J. K. Rowling will be spared, even though her series of Harry Potter books has been condemned for spreading witchcraft to children.

Hebrew manuscripts, a particular favorite for book burners, were publicly destroyed in 1242, thanks to King Louis of France and Pope Gregory IX. However, the twenty-four cartloads of books destroyed in the Parisian flames, were just a drop in the bucket compared to the widespread German book burnings of the 1930's.

The British tried their hand at book burning in 1814, when Washington DC was destroyed. The Library of Congress was restored with the gift of the books of Thomas Jefferson, just a year later.

Rare Book Monthly

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