Burning Libraries

National Library of Bosnia-Hercogovina burning, August 1992

Sarajevo was built in a natural bowl overlooked by steep, pine-covered hills. The hills were intended as natural ramparts and, in any conventional war, that is the purpose they would serve. But the recent war was not conventional: not in its battle-lines (for there were none), not in its combatants (who were neighbors rather than soldiers) and not in its targets. A library is the softest of soft targets and the library of the University of Sarajevo must have looked very tempting from those cold heights in 1992. It hardly requires the power of modern munitions to set a library ablaze. A single match would be enough and one doesn’t have to be a Serb gunner to have this thought.
We can all imagine it: a candle overturns, or an oil-lamp spills, or an ember drops out of a grate. A tiny flame shoots up and illuminates the shelf above, then grows and licks its way upward, throwing more light, changing the shelf into a bookcase, the bookcase into an endless corridor, a book-lined tunnel, then a network of similar tunnels. A library…. Soon, sheets of flame will be rolling and twisting down its corridors. They will be unstoppable and the faintly creepy, Piranesi-like passageways of a minute ago will be transformed into an inferno.
We are in a library. And the library is burning.
Or, more accurately: “We are in a library.” And, “The library is burning.” This is an event we only read about, or watch on the screen, or play in our heads. We know it, and recognise it instantly, but we have never actually seen it. Like out of town shopping complexes, football stadiums, and cemeteries, libraries are places we visit from time to time. We take out books and, sometimes, we bring them back. We fail to find the book we want and we take out something else instead. We listen to other people cough. Also (and unlike our relations with shopping complexes, stadiums, and cemeteries) we imagine the library burning.
Why?
Lucan, Seneca, Dion Cassius, and Orosius bear witness to a lost work of Livy in which he speaks of forty thousand scrolls burned by Caesar while besieged in the royal palace at Alexandria in 47 BC. The Library at Alexandria had been founded by Ptolemaeus Soter in the early years of the third century BC with the intention of collecting the books ‘of all the peoples of the world’ (according to Tzetzes’ ‘De Comoedia’). The collection soon numbered 200,000 ‘books’, divided, presumably, amongst a greater number of scrolls. Later the ‘books’ would reach half a million. It was a vast and chaotic repository of texts, commentaries, copies, forgeries, mad or inspired marginalia and scholia; the sum of ancient learning, which had been painstakingly accumulated, translated, and more or less catalogued by the Alexandrian scholars. And then, in a single night, burned by Caesar.
Generations of commentators, writers, and historians ranging from Caesar’s own biographer, Plutarch (c.100 AD), to recent editions of the classicists’ bible, the Pauly-Wissowa Real-Encyclopädie, have chosen to believe in Caesar’s guilt. But nothing happened.

In reality, the burnt scrolls were in depots by the Alexandrian docks, had nothing to do with the Library, which seems to have continued its work without interruption, and in any case there weren’t enough of them. This is relatively clear in the sources.
Other library-burning culprits come and go: Zenobia, a Palmyran warrior-queen, who occupied Alexandria in 272 AD, or the Emperor Aurelian, who drove her out, destroying much of the city in the process. Diocletian sacked it a few years later in 298 AD and, if still in existence, the Library itself probably did not survive the Emperor Theodosius’s edict in 391 AD to destroy all pagan temples.
Even so, candidates for the title ‘Burner of the Library’ continue to present themselves until the capture of the city in 640 AD by Emir Amrou Ibn el-Ass, whose meetings with an aged John Philoponus, grammarian of the Library, were later recorded by Ibn al-Kifti in his ‘History of Wise Men’. At Philoponus’s request, the Emir sent word asking Caliph Omar that the scholars be permitted to work in the Library. Caliph Omar’s reply deserves quotation in full:
“As for the books you mention, here is my reply. If their content is in accordance with the book of Allah, we may do without them, for in that case the book of Allah more than suffices. If, on the other hand, they contain matter not in accordance with the book of Allah, there can be no need to preserve them. Proceed, then, and destroy them.”
Confessions rarely come more full-blooded than that. The books, Ibn al-Kifti goes on, were burned to heat the baths throughout the city. There were four thousand baths in Alexandria and the books took six months to burn.
Four thousand! Six months! It is the enormity which makes it enthralling.
But it is all, unfortunately, absolute nonsense. By 640 AD, Philoponus was probably dead, devout seventh-century Moslems would have been very wary of burning the name of God even if written by heretics, and all the books in the world today would hardly feed four thousand fires for six months. Caliph Omar, like Caesar, is innocent, and the other supects disappear similarly, slipping through the gaps in the evidence, the cracks between competing ‘witnesses’ and their irreconcilable ‘facts’. Mould, bookworms, the decline in Greek studies, and the drift of the best scholars to Byzantium were the real culprits, which leaves our original, our best, our most intriguing question still unanswered. Who burned the Library?
Happily, an answer does exist. And a rather obvious one too, for who else could it be? The burning of the Library has no basis in fact and never did. It is our obsession, a fantasy welling up in our imaginations for two millennia.
We did it.

Of course, that statement represents intellectual modishness rather than historical fact; something beached  on the Left Bank of the Seine, where ‘the truth is nothing but a construct’ or ‘a product of our desires’ and the battles fought over it are, like Jean Baudrillard’s virtual Gulf War, a bloodless, computer-modelled, collective media fantasy.

The Burning of the Alexandrian Library may attract us in part because it did not happen. But there is a reality made up of the libraries that really were burned: Pergamum, Antioch, the Octavian and Palatine libraries at Rome, the Christian books at Constantinople (by Diocletian), and the whole library two centuries later (by accident), Monte Cassino (by the Lombards in the sixth century, by the Saracens in the ninth), part of the Bibliotheque Nationale (by the wonderfully-named ‘Committee of Reconstruction’) just after the French Revolution, the Library of Congress (by the British Army) after the American Revolution, part of the British Museum Library (by the Luftwaffe) in 1941. This list could be extended but for now it is enough. In our imaginations, the burning of a library fascinates us. In reality, however, it appalls us.
Whether intentionally or not, Umberto Eco negotiated this contradiction beautifully at the end of ‘The Name of the Rose’. The climax of the book is the burning of the monastery library and within it a collection of unique ancient texts. They will be lost forever and we, his readers, are appalled. Eco mentions one text in particular – Aristotle’s ‘On Comedy’, the companion to his seminal remarks on tragedy in his ‘Poetics’. What a loss! And yet how many of us have read Aristotle on Tragedy recently?
We value libraries, but we only read a tiny fraction of their contents. The rest sit there on the shelves, unopened, a reminder of all that is yet to be known. A reminder, in other words, of our ignorance. At one level, libraries. exist to make us feel stupid. If only we could swallow books whole, or by the book-case. Imagine being able to consume books as fast as a fire….

In November 1992 I found myself picking my way through a strange mixture of debris: broken furniture, melted plastic, heat-distorted test-tubes, soot, rubble, and charred books. I was in the ruins of the University of Bosnia and Herzegovina in Sarajevo. Three months before, during the night of August 25, Serb gunners in the surrounding hills had intentionally fired grenades into the historic building and set the library ablaze. Its entire holdings – between 1.5 and 2 million books and manuscripts – had burned. It was the National as well as University Library: amongst the various heritages destroyed that night was the destroyers’ own. Suddenly, for a single night, the fantasy of the gun-wielding peasants in the hills became real. They were as clever and well-read as the clever and well-read people in the city below. There was, after all, very little left to read.
But it’s a shoddy fantasy. Five years later, the library in Sarajevo is being reconstructed. There are plans for a virtual on-line library (which, by its nature, cannot burn). One might compare it to a phoenix rising from the ashes. Or to the library at Nineveh in Ancient Sumeria which burned spectacularly and totally, in 612 BC. But the ‘books’ of the Sumerians were written on clay tablets which the fire baked, preserving them for two and a half millennia.
Our thoughts about libraries are clear, but our feelings are mixed and paradoxical. Now, as we convert our printed books into data streams of 0′s and 1′s and hurl them into cyberspace, it seems the wheel has come full circle. Then, at Nineveh, as now, at Sarajevo, it seems to take an act of transmogrifying violence to keep a library safe. Accordingly and inevitably, we are burning books again.