The word civilization literally means “living in cities,” which is something that humans haven’t been doing very long in the overall scheme of things—roughly 6,000 years, or less than five percent of our existence as a species.
Writing is unnecessary in the absence of urban phenomena like laws and finance, so no one has turned up any writing that predates urbanization, and no one expects to. Civilization and writing are coextensive.
Within cultures writing is sometimes consecrated. But to say the Torah, Bible, and Koran are sacred doesn’t refer only to the contents—many of the faithful venerate the books themselves, the physical objects.
The idea that a book can speak for a religion or a culture is as old as writing. It was clear to Milton when he wrote, “Who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but he who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God.”
If a book speaks for the culture in which it was written, its destruction can be both a lynching and a genocide, symbolically negating not just that “reasonable creature,” the author, but the society or religion to which the author belonged. Sadly, anything consecratable is desecratable. And far more human knowledge has been destroyed since we first became “civilized” than has been preserved.
The master of this subject is Fernando Baez, the national librarian of Argentina, whose remarkable book about bibliocide, A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, has just been published in the U.S. Most historians research culture through the surviving record. Baez does the opposite: he researches the writing that didn’t survive. His unique overview reviews in painful detail the enormous amount of writing destroyed over our six millenia of civilization.
It’s not a happy story. Between 1500 and 300 BC, more than 233 libraries in 51 Middle Eastern cities were destroyed. Of the 120 plays Sophocles wrote, only seven full plays survive. Euripides wrote 82 tragedies, of which only 18 survive. Baez tells us that, incredibly, at least 75 percent of the writing of ancient Greece has been lost.
Book burning is a constant in human history. The thread of destruction runs through the rise and fall of Rome, the dynasties of China, the expansion of Islam, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. When one culture comes to dominate another, victory is often celebrated with a bonfire.
The record in recent decades is no more encouraging than that of the past. The Nazis are reviled for their massive book burnings, as are the communists of the Soviet Union and China, and the fascists of Italy and Spain. But revulsion didn’t prevent later bibliocausts on a similar scale. Well over one million books were purposely destroyed in the Bosnian conflict between 1991 and 1993.
In 2003 the UN sent Baez to survey damage to Iraq’s libraries, and he found that America takes a back seat to no one when it comes to turning paper into ash. At the start of the war, Iraq’s national library (including the national archives) was bombed, then shelled, then looted at least twice while left unguarded. More than 10 million books and documents were lost, many of which were irreplacable. Of course, similar scenes unfolded at universities and libraries throughout the country.
Since writing is a tool that extends human minds and memory, the destruction of writing is forcible ignorance, mandated forgetfulness, the destruction of civilization. It’s interesting to consider how close to the surface savagery lies, as humans repeatedly demonstrate. And it’s interesting to ponder how insignificant the squabbles between afficianados of print and digital technology really are, given our capacity for destruction on a far greater scale, and our record of accomplishment.
Check for Baez’s book at your local bookstore or library. But act quickly.
A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq
Atlas and Co.
New York, 2008