By Richard Ovenden

John Murray. 308 pages. £20. ISBN 978-1-529-37875-7

Reviewed by Jim Burns

One of the images perhaps best known to those who have seen documentaries about the rise of Nazism in Germany is that of the burning of books in the streets of Berlin in 1933. Jewish authors, left-wing novelists and poets, and any writer, in fact, who didn’t adhere to a narrow definition of what could be written about, would have known that his or her publications were probably being hurled into the flames by fanatics with a cause.

It’s probably what comes to mind when the word “burning” is used in connection with books. But attacks on knowledge can arrive in a variety of ways, some of them not necessarily evil in intent. The road leading to arrangements to destroy certain books and documents may be paved with good intentions.

When a group of people met in the offices of John Murray in May 1824 it was to decide what to do about Byron’s memoirs. They had been given by Byron to his friend, the Irish writer Thomas Moore, and had been read by a close circle of other friends and acquaintances. Not everyone was convinced that, after Byron died, they should be published. His reputation was already scandalous, and it was felt that the memoirs might affect it adversely even further, and reflect badly on his family, his wife’s relatives, and Byron’s publisher, John Murray. Richard Ovenden quotes William Gifford, editor of the influential Quarterly Review, as saying they were “fit only for a brothel and would damn Lord Byron to certain infamy if published”.  

Among the group gathered with Murray were Thomas Moore, his friend Henry Luttrell, together with Robert Wilmot-Horton and Colonel Frank Doyle, both of them representing Byron’s sister and widow. Moore had a financial interest in seeing the memoirs in print, Byron having authorised his impoverished friend to sell them, but as Ovenden puts it: “What exactly happened next is unclear but the manuscript was ultimately torn up and burned in the fire in the drawing room”. Depending on one’s point of view you can see this as an act of vandalism or a well-meant decision to protect the interests of those who Byron may have named. Either way, later scholars have regretted what took place. If the manuscript had survived, would it have helped throw useful light on Byron’s poetry? We can never know.

Byron clearly wanted his memoirs to be published, but other poets have sometimes left instructions that diaries and related material should be destroyed by their executors. Ovenden discusses the case of Philip Larkin. One of his lovers refused to accede to his request that certain materials should be burned after he died, but another shredded “more than thirty volumes of his diaries” on the grounds that it was what he wanted. It might be asked why Larkin didn’t destroy them himself? As a poet and librarian he would have known what might happen when a famous writer dies in terms of disputes about whether or not to follow his or her wishes.

There is the well-known case of Franz Kafka whose friend Max Brod decided not to follow his orders that everything should be burned. And Ovenden also looks into the question of what happened following the death of Sylvia Plath when Ted Hughes disposed of certain items, much to the annoyance of feminists and literary critics. Brod’s actions can be seen as benefiting readers and scholars, whereas what Hughes did might be viewed as largely designed to protect his own reputation and not deal fairly with Plath’s.

So far I’ve looked at individual cases involving the destruction of what would have been valuable materials for scholars to refer to. The major attacks on knowledge held in libraries, museums, and archives, have usually come about because of wars and religious and social intolerance. When the British attacked Washington during the War of 1812-14 they deliberately burned the library to the ground. It was claimed that it was a retaliatory action following an American attack on York (later renamed Toronto) when the library there was torched. But, as far as the Washington building was concerned, it was clearly aimed at destroying books and documents that served to provide the legal and historical basis for the American Revolution and the foundation of the nation. If you can do that then you can start to deny the existence of both. The British hadn’t really got over the fact that they’d lost the American colonies.

When the Germans invaded Belgium at the beginning of the First World War they seemed to have made a point of setting fire to the famous Louvain Library which “held over three hundred thousand volumes in its collection…………Its holdings reflected Belgian cultural identity”. The Germans claimed that fires were started by individual soldiers reacting to being fired on by civilian sharpshooters, and denied any deliberate intention to destroy the library. But the act caused widespread anger and went towards creating a view of the Huns as barbarians. Was it part of a specific policy to denigrate Belgian culture?

A more-recent demonstration of an attempt to destroy what might be called the intellectual framework of a state took place in Bosnia during the Serbian siege of Sarajevo. The library, which housed many old books and documents relating to the country and its Muslim past, was deliberately targeted by the Serb artillery with snipers placed to pick off anyone attempting to douse the flames or rescue books and artefacts. There is no doubt that there was a carefully planned design to destroy the building and its contents.

I referred at the beginning of this review to the Nazis burning Jewish books in 1933, and their actions were a forerunner to what was to take place during the twelve years of the Third Reich. Heinrich Heine said, “Wherever they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings”, and it was a prophecy that came horribly true for the Jews, “the people of the book”, as they were known because of their love of learning and books being central to Jewish religion and culture. Both books and people had been burned before, of course, the Catholic Church and the Protestants of the Reformation being inclined to set light to reading material they didn’t like and to people who wouldn’t conform to their particular ideologies. That some old books and manuscripts did survive as purges got going was largely due to individuals who hid books whenever they could. According to Ovenden, “The European Reformation of the sixteenth century was in many ways one of the worst periods in the history of knowledge”, and adds that “hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed”.

The Nazi campaign against the Jews was equally destructive. As the Nazis took over in Germany and then spread their control into other countries, Jewish property was confiscated. Books and other printed matter were shipped to Germany, if they were not destroyed, so that institutes could be established to study Judaism with a view to discrediting it and, eventually, consigning it to just an item on the list of lost communities and cultures. That would accord with the plan to establish Aryan culture as the principal one in the history of civilisation.

Ovenden looks closely at what happened in Lithuania and especially in Vilnius (then called Vilna), which had “a strong culture of libraries”, when the Germans arrived in 1941. Jews were recruited to help sort the books into those that the occupiers wanted to send to Germany and those that would be pulped. The Jews weren’t willing recruits, but being employed as they were they had the opportunity to smuggle some books out and hide them. Ovenden describes them as “an extraordinary group of courageous scholars and librarians”. He also records that the German in charge of the overall operation was a librarian and a more-than-willing member of the Nazi Party. Knowledge is essential but not necessarily a guaranteed route to a liberal state of mind.

I haven’t followed Ovenden’s chronology of the devastation wreaked on libraries and archives by wars and fanatics of one kind or another. He surveys the early manifestations of libraries in Nineveh and Alexandria, of which “no material evidence survives from the library itself”, and describes it as “the archetypal library of the Western imagination”. How was it destroyed? Wars certainly had their impact, but neglect played its part. The transition from papyrus to parchment to paper wasn’t a smooth one and things inevitably deteriorated. And he takes us to the Middle-East where, in the nineteenth century, British and French archeologists competed to see who could find artefacts to fill museums in London and Paris. There is so much referred to in Ovenden’s narrative that I could happily have spent hours picking up leads and investigating them. He remarks: “From Islamic Spain to the Abbasid Kingdom in Iraq libraries sprang up. There were great libraries in Syria and Egypt, over seventy libraries in Islamic Spain, and thirty six in Baghdad alone”. I couldn’t help wondering what happened to those libraries in Spain as the Moors were forced out of the country?

In a book I read recently it was stated that “San Francisco Library pulped 250,000 forgotten books to make way for computers and reading spaces”. It has happened elsewhere, and Ovenden as a librarian (he’s the top man at the prestigious Bodleian Library in Oxford) is alert to the problems that libraries face in the modern world. Besides lack of funding they have to accept that they can’t possibly keep everything, a dilemma that those of us who love books face in our own lives, though obviously not on the same scale. Decisions need to be made about what to keep, and what to do with what is to be disposed of. And how much can be digitalised before it does disappear? Who makes the decision about which book is worthy of retention and which can be pulped or, though it seems a crime even to simply say it, burned?

In a neat aside, Ovenden points out that, in our daily lives way, we all dispose of knowledge. He refers to his own experience of sorting out the house of a deceased relative, and having to decide which documents to throw away. In some ways, perhaps all of them might be relevant to a future scholar? I have had this experience myself when dealing with the letters and other paperwork of a friend. I felt I could get rid of most of the material on the grounds that its relevance was limited in the extreme. But I found it difficult to get rid of her few books and in the end absorbed them into my own. But I am one of those people who hates to let books go even though I know I’ll never read them again. People tell me that I could tidy up the house and create more shelf-space if I digitalised some of my books, assuming I could afford to do so.  But I like the idea of a book in my hand. And I worry about digitalised documents and whose hands they could fall into.

Burning the Books is a fascinating book and has been written by a man who himself clearly loves libraries and literature and everything connected with them. It ought to be read by anyone who cares about what will happen to libraries in the future. They will continue to exist, but possibly only in major cities and centres of learning. Smaller locations may have to form their own voluntary groups, as they have done with cinemas and pubs, to keep them open. As for books, there seems to be a continued demand for them, though specialist items tend to be priced out of the range of most individuals and even some institutions. But technology has meant that it’s easier to produce books. This, of course, can lead to problems for libraries if they try to keep up with the constant flow of new publications from around the country. There isn’t the space for them, at least not in printed book form. But I’m never going to suggest that there should be restrictions on the availability of books.