BOOKS ON FIRE:
The Destruction of Libraries Throughout History
Lucien X. Polastron
When I first took this book out of its mailing container
I thought: "Gee, it's damaged. How could that have happened in a cardboard
box?" Then I looked more closely & realized that the jacket of the
book was cleverly designed to give the appearance of its having been burned. So
that right off can't help but stir a potential reader's interest.
BOOKS ON FIRE is a historical examination of book burning & the destruction of famous (and not so famous) libraries. A skilled writer who knows that the best way to convey history is by letting the reader in on behind the scenes descriptions, gossip & scandal pens the work. For example, the opening chapter deals with the fabled Library of Alexandria under the imported Ptolemy dynasty (that concluded with the death of Cleopatra.) I have been studying this historic period for some time now, but Lucien X. Polastron sprinkles this section of his work with wonderful little tidbits that were new to me, and that also shed new light on this fascinating moment in time.
Regarding The Library of Alexandria, author Lucien X. Polastron quotes Hugh Lloyd-Jones: "If this Library had survived, the dark ages, despite the preponderance of Christianity, could have been considerably lighter."
Polastron opens each chapter with a short, pithy and/or poetic quotes from diverse sources. For example, the author opens Chapter 3 with this quote from Alexander Pope commenting on public book burning "Heavens, what a pile! Whole ages perish there, and one bright blaze turns learning into air."
BOOKS ON FIRE was originally written in French, and is well served by Jon E. Graham's impeccable & colloquial perfect English translation.
Polastron's writing style is poetic, contemporary, engaging, often humorous (sometimes slyly so) & extraordinarily insightful: "So just what are libraries, then? For the nation they are indecipherable dead weight, for the bureaucrats an empoisoned directive; but above all, they are the symbol of tyranny in the eyes of the restless..."
The contents cover the full gamut of book burning & library wrecking in human history, from the destruction of the Library of Alexandria, the Early Christian era, the early days of Islam, the Inquisition in Europe & the Americas, to Hitler & Stalin, up to and including our own time. In between the major historical periods Polastron includes lesser known, but equally enlightening & devastating examples of violent censorship of The Collective Word. No transgressor is spared the damning spotlight revealed by the author: Left, Right & every bigoted position in between. It is shocking to become aware of the thousands, probably tens of thousands of violent attempts to suppress human thought there have been throughout our torturous history.
The section Early Islam provided a wealth of information that really helped me personally understand the historic significance of this religion. I've read a number of academic books on this complex subject, but none of them were constructed in such a way that appeals to both popular & intellectual curiosity. Again, Polastron exhibits that rare gift to draw the reader or student into a sense of intimacy and, yes, "fun."
Perhaps smiling to mask the tears would be a more apt description.
The effect on the European invasions on the indigenous of the "New World" is well known, but the destruction of their literature & high level of learning is not so well known because Christianity made sure to wipe out virtually every trace of it.
One can't help but to recall those famous words of Heinrich Hein: "Where they burn books, they will in the end burn human beings as well." [He made this statement referring to the burning of The Koran during the Spanish Inquisition.
Regarding the Iraq War & US Occupation Polastron aptly remarks: "The quiet list servers of the Internet...suddenly exploded with invectives and revealed how intolerance could hide precisely where it was least expected. A good number of the American subscribers displayed open hostility to any mention of Iraq and slammed shut their portals...the United States and Great Britain never ratified the 1954 Hague Convention decree on the protection of cultural items in the lands to which they, as nations, might bring misfortune, the leaders of these two countries had only their consciences for their guide. As for the soldiers..."
In this chronicle the reader not only discovers the events behind the destruction, but also the history of buildings & books destroyed.
I highly recommend Books on Fire to the historian, the literary enthusiast & to all champions of free thought.