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  • Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden
  • Miriam Intrator
Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge
by Richard Ovenden
ISBN: 978-0-674-24120-6

"Deliberate" is the key word in the title Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge, by Richard Ovenden. Ovenden's premise is that over time, the destruction of knowledge has repeatedly and heartbreakingly been a deliberate act; therefore, its preservation must be an equally deliberate act. Each chapter focuses on a specific story of knowledge creation, preservation, and destruction (or some combination thereof). Ovenden's passion as a scholar, librarian, and bibliophile permeates his descriptions of encounters with ancient and historic texts in the course of his work at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library. Details about how an item feels in the hand or impacts the eye lend a personal tone to a scholarly survey. While Burning the Books cannot be exhaustive, because the creation and destruction of knowledge span centuries and continents, it is admirably comprehensive in chronological and geographic coverage.

As Ovenden states in the introduction, "Knowledge can be vulnerable, fragile and unstable" (7). As long as knowledge has been created and recorded, in whatever form, format, or materiality, it has also been destroyed on a spectrum ranging from malicious acts of erasure to neglectful complacency. While stories and imagery of violent destruction may stick best in people's minds and memories, Ovenden argues that neglect poses a greater threat. Indeed, the library of Alexandria, perhaps the most storied library of all time, was long believed destroyed in a massive, devastating fire. Subsequent research points instead to a slow decline. For Ovenden, its fate serves as "a cautionary tale," given profound threats such as underfunding, low prioritization, and general disregard, to many storehouses of knowledge today (36).

Lest the reader believe the most egregious incidents of destruction occurred in a distant past, Ovenden emphasizes the opposite with graphic descriptions of more recent horrors, including the burning of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Baghdad's National Library. The lack of effort and resources put into protecting such vital knowledge centers shows that neglect and complacency are just as dangerous as fire.

Ovenden also acknowledges the role of selection in knowledge preservation and destruction. When an individual or group decides what will be preserved and how it will be described, cataloged, and accessed, they are simultaneously deciding what will be discarded or denied a standard of care necessary to prolong its life. The selection/deselection process constitutes an act of power that curates a specific vision of what is and is not preservation worthy. In an example of an abuse of this power, Ovenden outlines instances of the selective destruction of materials from colonial archives documenting criminal [End Page 358] behavior. On the other hand, selection can be activism or resistance. One chapter examines Jewish slave laborers under Nazism, for example, who were forced to sort Jewish books and archives and who risked their lives to select and hide materials so that some precious content, and the slave laborers themselves, might survive. Another chapter looks at Max Brod, one among many throughout history who have been asked by loved ones to act as destroyer. In Brod's case, it was his dear friend Franz Kafka's dying wish for all his papers and manuscripts to be burned. Some feel bound to honor such demands. Others choose defiance to ensure the content survives. Through such stories, Ovenden draws attention both to the individuals and institutions responsible—whether by choice, assignment, or happenstance—for preserving knowledge and to the weight of that responsibility.

Also examined are imperialistic collection practices and ongoing debates around ownership, care, and curation, including at the Bodleian, where materials from the world over are stored and preserved. Whether obtained through outright theft and plunder or saviorism—claiming to save materials otherwise endangered due to political or social instability, poor conditions, insufficient resources, supposed lack of local expertise, and so on—these materials...