People of the Book: 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.
People of the Book: Survival and Responsibility
Nazi-led book burning in the 1930's.
Book destruction is not just political; it is the outpouring of ignorance. Why were we not surprised when looters raged through Baghdad's National Library in 2003, destroying tens of thousands of irreplaceable manuscripts and setting fire to books? And how many could even have read or understood them? And why was nothing done to protect them?
When I was young, I can remember being totally shocked when I first read of the sack of Alexandria and the destruction of its library. We're talking hundreds of thousands of scrolls by the greatest thinkers of the day, the loss of incalculable knowledge.
So when a book was written about survival - I sat up and took notice. Geraldine Brooks's People of the Book is number 2 on The New York Times Bestseller List, three weeks now on the list. It is a book whose central character is not the female narrator, whose intermingled personal and professional life as a book conservator provides the contemporary framework for the story, but a real book — the so-called "Sarajevo Haggadah".
The history of this Hebrew codex has been largely hidden, but there are some things that are known. Scholars believe it was created in Spain in perhaps as early as the mid-14th century, CE, during the Convivencia, when Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together in relative peace. The Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 by Ferdinand and Isabella, and nothing more is known of the book until the 17th century, when it reappeared in Venice and was passed by a Catholic priest named Vistorini, which saved it from the book burnings of the Inquisition. Other books that had Vistorini's signature also survived.
The book passed through Vienna and in 1894 the Haggadah was sold to the National Museum in Sarajevo by a man named Joseph Kohen. Its survival was still not assured. During World War II, it was smuggled out of the Museum by a Muslim scholar under the nose of the Nazis and kept safely in a Muslim home or mosque. During the Bosnian War of the 1990's it was hidden inside a bank vault.
That this priceless book, one of the most beautiful medieval Jewish manuscripts, is still in existence was the result of good fortune, bravery and sacrifice. In all the years of its existence, the Sarajevo Haggadah was not broken, and it was not burned. It survived the Spanish expulsion, the Inquisition, two World Wars and the Bosnian bloodletting. It was saved at least twice by Muslims. Had it been separated or destroyed, its story would have been destroyed with it. Used in celebrating the Passover service, the Haggadah speaks of the liberation and survival of the Jewish people, and by its existence its own.
What does this tell us and what can we learn from all the people who had possession of it and protected it? As we buy and sell rare materials, what is our collective responsibility in preserving the books that now exist for future generations?
Renée Magriel Roberts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.