Burning the Books by Richard Ovenden

I heard a bit of this on BBC Radio 4’s Book at Bedtime, so knew what to expect, which was an erudite journey through different episodes in history, ancient and very recent, about how those in authority can’t help but try to erase human knowledge and how librarians and archivists have fought back, by hiding priceless Jewish manuscripts in Nazi office’s hollowed-out furniture, for example, or by using records to bring the bastards to justice after the event (cf Milosevic) to how the destruction at the hands of raiding troops, be they Serbs, Soviets, Nazis or Brits, can inspire those sweeping up the embers to rebuild their knowledge even better than before. While you could criticize the book for cherry-picking episodes, that every chapter has an anecdote about the Bodleian library in Oxford (of which Ovenden was director), and that he raises the controversy of great imperial libraries, like the Bodleian, keeping manuscripts plundered from the colonies, without offering a solution other than to be understanding, that would be unfair to the man, who makes a spirited and timely plea for the modern world to wake up and realise that libraries and archives are not luxuries but necessities for democratic societies and marginalized peoples who need a memory and official record longer than a deleted Twitter feed.

No. 25 of 100 books I intend to read and review in 2020.

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Patrick Sherriff is an Englishman who survived 13 years working for newspapers in the US, UK and Japan. Between teaching English lessons at his conversation school in Abiko, Japan, with his wife, he writes and illustrates textbooks for non-native speakers of English, releases Hana Walker mystery novels, short stories, essays and a monthly newsletter  highlighting good fiction published in English about Japan. Saku’s Random Book Club is his latest project to spend more time with books.


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