At this point, I had to stop reading Ovenden’s book for a moment, to picture the author going through the dressing-table drawers of, say, his elderly aunt. I imagine this would be an oddly impressive sight, for by day he is Bodley’s librarian (the most senior position at the Bodleian Libraries in Oxford). If there’s anyone you might want to read your love letters after your death, it’s probably him; as Burning the Books reveals on every page, not only is he careful, diligent and wise, he also knows what to leave out, and what to keep in – and it’s this quality, above all, that makes his book so remarkable. Its sweep is quite astonishing and yet, amazingly, his narrative runs to just 320 pages.
Ovenden grew up in Kent: his passion for libraries was conceived in Deal’s public library. He reminds us that it was only in 1964 that the Public Libraries and Museums Act made it a duty for local authorities to provide libraries; in the age of austerity, the system is in trouble. In 2018-19, there were 3,583 public libraries in the UK compared with 4,356 in 2009-10: 773 have closed. “There is nothing more to the credit of a library than that every man finds in it what he seeks,” wrote the 17th-century French librarian and scholar Gabriel Naudé. Richard Ovenden is a passionate advocate of that view: despite the tales of wrecking and pillage that fill his book, it’s clear that he is by nature an optimist, calling out to the better angels of our nature to fight for the preservation of what makes us who we are.
This is not just a fascinating, often entertaining, surprising, incredibly well-researched and beautifully written book. It is an important book, now more than ever, when the whole idea of evidence is under attack from many quarters. Here in Ireland, we know the cost of losing a significant archive, having destroyed our National Archives during the Civil War. (I was slightly peeved that Ovenden didn’t devote some attention to this catastrophe; it would have been interesting to have his take on it.) The wonderful Beyond 2022 project is the recuperative force in this case, digitally bringing together copies and surrogates of many of the records lost in 1922.
He starts with ancient Mesopotamia and ends in Facebook and Twitter, detailing specific episodes rather than attempting a comprehensive history, charting the apparently never-ending threat to the recorded past. He dissects the methods and motives of those who have sought to burn, bury or delete the texts through which the story of the human race – its wanderings, discoveries and longings – has been documented. But he is careful to lavish special attention, the admiration of a kindred spirit, on those who stood in the way.
We scruple even to write in the margin of the pulpiest paperback, a Dawkins or Mantel, available in their millions, let alone toss one on the fire. Yet we take a different attitude when clearing out the unique private papers of a deceased aunt. Philip Larkin, a librarian by trade, kept his own papers in good order and in an essay urged the preservation of manuscripts that enlarge our “understanding of a writer’s life and work”. That’s not what he did with his own manuscripts. “When I see the Grim Reaper coming up the path,” he wrote in a letter, “I’m going to the bottom of the garden, like Thomas Hardy, and I’ll have a bonfire of all the things I don’t want anyone to see.”
When people burn books, they are doing more than attacking words on paper. They are attempting to destroy the record of a people’s past and, through that, their right to be present. The Nazis’ book burning, writes Richard Ovenden, was a “warning sign of their policy of genocide”. The attack on the Sarajevo library was “born of the desire to wipe out the memory of Muslim participation in Bosnian history and culture”. Ovenden is the head of Oxford university’s Bodleian Library. The library was the creation of Sir Thomas Bodley, one of a group of post-Reformation antiquarians determined to rescue what they could of the past.
On opening Ovenden’s fascinating and rewarding history, a reader may perhaps be disappointed, as I was, to come face to face with the famous observation of the 19th-century German poet Heinrich Heine, ‘Whenever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn people.’ Although Ovenden offers one of the more elegant translations, I wondered whether he might have found an equally pithy but not quite so frequently used aphorism as an epigraph. On finishing, Burning the Books, I realised that the subject demanded exactly that line, and that, in fact, it can never be repeated too often.
Having opened his book with the unforgettable image of German students burning books on Berlin’s lovely Unter den Linden in 1933, with Goebbels boasting about wanting “to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past”, it’s surprising that Ovenden says nothing about fanatical campus activists today, pulling down statues, deplatforming speakers and trying to ban the use of words such as “sportsmanship”.
He also believes that we still honour freedom of speech in this country. Really? Have we not progressively abandoned it in favour of safe spaces and community cohesion? It all makes for a disappointingly toothless ending to an otherwise intriguing book.
Stories about libraries do not usually stir the blood. Burning the Books, however, is a passionate and illuminating account of the obliteration of knowledge that has occurred over the past three millennia. Ovenden’s aim is “not just to highlight the destruction of [libraries] . . . but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back”. Working in a library is usually a rather safe profession, but the characters in this book are superheroes who fight and die for the cultures they are obliged to protect. The German effort to erase Judaism in Lithuania, for instance, was thwarted by slave labourers who struggled doggedly to preserve the books they were supposed to destroy. Almost all of them were eventually murdered, but the books they saved remain... This splendid book reveals how, in today’s world of fake news and alternative facts, libraries stand defiant as guardians of truth.
It's a galvanising manifesto for the importance of physical libraries in our increasingly digital age. Libraries, says Ovenden, are far more than stores of literature: by preserving legal documents such as Magna Carta and records of citizenship, they also support the rule of law and the rights of ordinary citizens. The accumulated knowledge of the past retains the power to teach and inspire in future, and we fail to preserve it at our peril.