The practice of book burning has been around since, well, books have been around. Sometimes a book is burned purposefully, usually by some jerk, in a form of political or intellectual censorship. Other times a book is burned without purpose as the result of a natural disaster. Mainly though it’s been jerks; just look through Wikipedia’s “List of Destroyed Libraries.” Crusaders, Nazi’s (of course), England, America (yeah, us too), and almost every other country has at one time or another gotten so mad that they just burnt a library to the ground. On one hand, when we consider all of the information that’s been lost in these fires it’s simply devastating. On the other hand…
Before I get into this other hand I want to make it clear that I, Lucas Sifuentes, do not condone, encourage, or participate in book burning. For evidence, look to the previous paragraph where I call people who burn books a bunch of jerks. Also, I work in a library.
… a burnt book does afford us some rare and unique opportunities. Two authors who explore this issue within their own writings are Thomas Browne, with his tract Musaeum Clausum, and William Blades, with his book The Enemies of Books.
Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum is a make believe inventory of lost treasures, or as he puts it “remarkable Books, Antiquities, Pictures and Rarities of several kinds, scarce or never seen by any man now living.” It’s basically a catalogue of fictitious entries. In his writing Browne takes advantage of a book’s ability to be lost forever and turns it into an opportunity to relive memories that never happened and create things that never could’ve existed otherwise. My favorite item in his list is number 12 under Antiquities and Rarities of Other sorts, “The Skin of a Snake bred out of the Spinal Marrow of a Man.” It’s a relatively short piece of writing and one that I think is essential to anyone looking to traffic in misinformation or make believe.
Where Browne takes the opportunity to entertain whimsy, Blades is purely practical. His book The Enemies of Books is a delightful history of book destruction. Blades was a printer and “keen collector” of books and prints. In his writing you can hear his love for books, as an object and as a conveyor of thought, especially in his chapter on Vermin where he describes how some rats burrow into and turn books into their homes. But what I found most intriguing in Blades’ book came in his first chapter, Fire.
There are many of the forces of nature which tend to injure Books; but among them all not one has been half so destructive as Fire. It would be tedious to write out a bare list only of the numerous libraries and bibliographical treasures which, in one way or another, have been seized by the Fire-king as his own. Chance conflagrations, fanatic incendiarism, Judicial bonfires, and even household stoves have, time after time, thinned the treasures as well as the rubbish of the past ages, until probably not one-thousandth part of the books that have been are still extant. This destruction cannot, however, be reckoned as all loss; for had not the “cleansing fires” removed mountains of rubbish from our midst, strong destructive measures would have become a necessity from sheer want of space in which to store so many volumes.
It’s weird to hear a proclaimed lover of books talk about them in such a practical manner. Yet at the same time he makes somewhat of a point.
The main difference that I think is fun to consider between Bowne and Blades is the volume of information available during their lives. In a review of Browne’s Musaeum Clausum Claire Preston writes “The catalogue of Browne’s lost museum speaks of fragmentation, scattering, and loss..” Blades’ book then speaks of an oversaturation where books are not only expendable but intellectually pervasive in their volume. Both works offer a unique view of an information landscape and the troubles and beauties within that landscape.
Today our information landscape is entirely different. Fire is only really a threat to books as an object; with countless classic and contemporary works available from “the cloud” books have finally become as ethereal and evasive as their own ideas. And with space no longer being an issue the only real room we have to make is in our literal and figurative memory. The amount of information in books has grown far beyond what any one person can come to know thereby removing that as a possibility. And yes, there was a time when people believed it was possible to know everything. Of course it was never really possible to know everything; it was just an error in their perception. Fortunately for us we know we’ll never be able to learn everything; and while this may seem tragic to some another way to look at it is that were presented with an endless supply of wonder and knowledge.
So what do you think? What are the contemporary enemies of books? Have you ever lost a book that meant a lot to you? Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the sheer volume of books you want to read and understand? Please leave some comments below so that we can continue our discussion on jerks, people who think they can know everything, and those of us who know better.