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  • Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge by Richard Ovenden
  • Daniel Diez Couch
Richard Ovenden, Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2020), 308 pp.

In the first pages of Burning the Books, Richard Ovenden offers his readers a stark juxtaposition, one that has become all too familiar in recent time: Nazism and Trumpism. The two examples that introduce his study—the notorious book burnings of midcentury Germany and the regime of “alternative facts” engineered by the Trump administration—lay out the stakes of the volume: nothing less than the need to preserve and perpetuate knowledge in the face of powerful forces of ignorance. “This book has been motivated,” Ovenden writes, “by my own sense of anger at recent failures across the globe—both deliberate and accidental—to ensure that society can rely on libraries and archives to preserve knowledge” (5). To be sure, we can all sympathize with the sentiment that inspires his writing. While his righteous anger by and large moves along Manichean grounds that occasionally seem reductive, Ovenden’s study is an important one that merits attention.

Most readers of ALH have benefited tremendously from the efforts of librarians. Whether we have worked in the reading rooms of institutions like the American Antiquarian Society or have delved into the vast treasures of online databases, literary scholarship—particularly of the historical variety—is deeply dependent on memory institutions, as Ovenden dubs them. Burning the Books at once provides a striking reminder of the necessity of such places for social well-being, along with a kind of love letter to some of the best librarians history has to offer. “This book has been written not just to highlight the destruction of those institutions in the past, but also to acknowledge and celebrate the ways librarians and archivists have fought back” (14), Ovenden writes, carefully cataloging the “extraordinary efforts of the preservers of knowledge” (15). Such examples often bear resemblances to epic histories that make for stirring reading: the monks of Iona protecting the famed Book of Kells from Viking raids, Protestant librarians saving priceless manuscripts from the violence of the Reformation, Jewish scholars in Nazi-controlled Vilnius carting away precious books hidden in moldy furniture to the ghetto, and András Riedlmayer of the Fine Arts Library at Harvard facing down Slobodan Milošević in the International Criminal Tribunal to accuse him of war crimes against cultural heritage. Our scholarly world is one that we have inherited from these struggles, and Ovenden’s volume is an unambiguous reminder of the risks specific individuals took to ensure the survival of written knowledge.

The scope of Ovenden’s inquiry also moves to the level of individual choice throughout his chapters, as he considers the ethics of preserving personal archives. Such a decision [End Page 1182] becomes especially fraught if the creator desired their destruction. Using Lord Bryon, Franz Kafka, Philip Larkin, and Sylvia Plath as his examples, Ovenden explores the moral questions surrounding the preservation of personal papers. These decisions, he argues, “are actually ‘political’: that is, concerned with the exercise of power—power over the public reputation, and over what becomes public and what remains private” (95). The stakes of such decisions become especially clear with Plath’s case; her letters were censored, controlled, and possibly destroyed by her executor, Ted Hughes. What happens when part of the record of such a figure is lost? How can we ensure the preservation of that priceless literary knowledge? Ovenden does not exactly answer such questions, but he does reassert their relevance for our current generation.

As Plath’s example suggests, Ovenden’s stories of manuscripts and books rescued from the flame are also set against the terrible loss of other countless works. The ur-event of literary destruction is, of course, the burning of the library at Alexandria, an episode which Ovenden describes as “a cautionary tale of the danger of creeping decline, through the underfunding, low prioritisation and general disregard for the institutions that preserve and share knowledge” (36). He identifies this “creeping decline” as a primary enemy within political and cultural life both...