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Nothing Is so Fragile as a Book
Opinions About Books Are Every Bit as Powerful as Those Within Them. Reviewing ‘The Library’ by Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen
While everyone agrees it was the most ambitious collection of books in the ancient world, nobody knows the true size of the Library of Alexandria. Scholars say as many as 200,000 scrolls, maybe half a million. Nor do we know how it was ultimately destroyed: fire is the usual suspect, though who set the blazes and when are open to debate.
It turns out, however, fire need never have touched a single scroll. In their book, The Library: A Fragile History, Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen point out that mere neglect would suffice to reduce the collection to ruin.
“The major disadvantage of papyrus, otherwise an excellent medium for information storage is its susceptibility to damp,” they write. “Even in a well curated collection, texts need to be recopied after a generation or two.” Thus, they say, “The sheer size of the Alexandrian library militated against its survival.”
Hope and Futility
Building a library that size was heroic, the product of wild vision. But it would have been practically impossible to sustain the effort. Why?
Every subsequent generation would have to choose to invest its own resources in the grand project of its forebears. The problem is that later generations have projects of their own, and resources are limited. Subsequent generations also have ideas of their own, some of which conflict with those of their ancestors. That’s the root of library destruction through the ages—every bit as damaging as fire.
Nothing seems so permanent—while in fact being so perishable—as a library. Through page after page, Pettegree and Weduwen bring that message home loud and sometimes cringingly clear. They describe The Library as a “roller-coaster journey through 2,000 years of creation, disaster and destruction, malice and commitment, and the occasional piece of illiterate foolishness.” And the adjective fragile in the subtitle easily stretches to cover every sort of vulnerability from which books suffer.
Building a library, whether large or small, represents one of the ultimate human endeavors: compiling a record of our cultural attainments as a resource for future contemplation and growth. But like all human endeavors, those efforts are tight with the tension of hope and futility.
Books are treasured and collected. But they are also forgotten, carted off, left to rot, pilfered, pulped, discarded, dispersed, dismembered, incinerated, and more. “Libraries only last as long as people find them useful,” write Pettegree and Weduwen, and much of the drama in The Library involves hot and cold contests over what counts as useful to whom, and for what purposes.
It’s popular to assume and say, for instance, that medieval Christians were responsible for the destruction of the classical past, that books by pagan authors were targeted for elimination. While you can find examples of intentional destruction, the truth is less scandalous.
Alexandria’s basic challenge didn’t stop with them. To survive through the centuries, books needed to be copied and recopied. That means scribes required fresh supplies of writing materials. Unfortunately, papyrus imports dwindled as Rome declined at the end of the classical era.
As the Middle Ages dawned, bookmakers responded by moving to parchment. Processed from animal hides, parchment naturally had limitations of its own; there are only so many calves and sheep running around at any given time. So for economic and practical reasons, parchment was scarce as well. And, as Pettegree and Weduwen note, there were still further disruptions at play.
Around the same time the papyrus market evaporated, Christian preference for the codex—a book of pages, not a scroll—dominated book production. The pagan past was almost entirely preserved on papyrus scrolls, but the future of the book for the next thousand years was parchment codices.
As the ancient books gradually fell out of use, monks—because book production had largely moved to monasteries—failed to copy them, focusing their efforts and limited resources on copying books that mattered more to their particular communities. That usually meant more copies of Sts. Augustine and Cyprian than Seneca and Ovid.
The attrition was slow but, given the incentives at work, also sure. And books that might have been preserved for a while could still end up lost because parchment permitted reuse. The page of a book could be scraped or washed clean, allowing monks to make a fresh copy of another work. “The obliteration of classical tests was not necessarily an act of hostility to the august literature of Rome,” write Pettegree and Weduwen. To invoke a modern slogan: monks reduced, reused, recycled.
Besides, as the authors say, “many more Christian than pagan texts were destroyed in this manner.” What’s a monk to do when writing material is scarce, but your spiritual practice requires copying? When you run out of Ovid to recycle, you turn to that extra copy of St. Cyprian—no slight intended toward either, just holy indifference.
Of course, Christian monks did preserve scores of pagan classical works. Whatever they found useful—mathematics, rhetoric, philosophy, and so on, even some Ovid—they kept and copied. That’s how we still have those Latin classics today.
While monkish indifference for the classical legacy gets the blame for the loss of many books, intentional destruction also plays a part in Pettegree and Weduwen’s history. During the Reformation, for instance, books were stripped from shelves and destroyed by Reformers and Catholics alike.
Martin Luther’s iconoclastic torching of the papal bull stands as an inaugural event of the Reformation. Participants in the protest also tossed piles of books—Catholic pamphlets and tomes of canon law—onto the pyre. “This began a tit-for-tat struggle,” write Pettegree and Weduwen, “with books stoking the fires of controversy throughout Europe.”
When the German peasants rose up in 1524, their first targets included monasteries. As monks were heavily involved in book production, libraries were singled out for destruction. After one Cisterican monastery in Herrenalb was ravaged, no one could enter the ruins without finding shredded, dismembered books underfoot. Tallies were later made of the destruction at different locations; in some cases, thousands of books per monastery were destroyed.
While the mobs stripped the shelves in Germany, theft of monastic holdings in England was a formal process, sanctioned by the government. After the Act of Supremacy in 1534, monasteries were dissolved and their property—including books—seized.
The gentry and merchants bought up the assets and disposed of them however they saw fit. Collectors valued some of the books, but countless treasures ended up destroyed, used in some cases to rebind other books, clean boots, polish candlesticks, and serve even lesser ends. Some found their way to lavatories—reused a few pages at a time.
The ravages continued as the Reformation progressed. It became illegal in England to own Catholic books. Many books originally spared dismemberment and destructive reuse were later burned. Cambridge and Oxford saw their shelves picked clean of Catholic books during Edward VI’s reign—and again of Protestant books during the reign of the Catholic monarch Mary Tudor.
Catholic response to the Reformation was every bit as brutal. In the Netherlands, for instance, printers and book shops were raided, their wares tossed on pyres and sent up in smoke. Similar scenes played out across Europe, leading to—and furthered by—Pope Paul IV’s Index of Prohibited Books.
The Index in its many iterations empowered the Inquisition to scour, purge, burn, and deface not only Protestant books, but also Jewish books. The Talmud was condemned by papal order in 1553 and tens of thousands of Jewish books were burned in the years thereafter.
This Book, Not That
Thankfully, Europe eventually cooled off and the embers died down. But censorious attitudes persisted, now regularly manifested as snobbery.
At the tail end of the sixteenth century, Thomas Bodley proposed rebuilding the library at Oxford, which was then nearly empty after the reciprocal destructions of the Reformation period. He kicked things off in 1602 with 2,000 volumes; two decades later it was ten times that size.
Despite his fever-paced acquisition, Bodley was choosy about what landed on his shelves. “Bodley envisioned that his library should be composed of serious books,” write Pettegree and Weduwen, “ordered according to the traditional hierarchy of university faculties: theology, jurisprudence, medicine and the higher arts. . . .” That meant, in Bodley’s words, no “idle books and riffe raffes.”
This has always been true of library building: Someone has to decide what books are in, and that involves—even if only indirectly—decisions about what books are out. The tricky bit is that the criteria are random and they evolve. Books acceptable to one generation are useless to the next, and vice versa. For Bodley that looked like no books in English—not even Shakespeare, a playwright who has a home in any decent library today. Meanwhile, the Latin classics Bodley favored only feature in specialist collections these days.
Bodley’s snobbery was echoed by later generations of librarians who looked down at novels and tried keeping fiction out of the hands of readers. Pettegree and Weduwen refer to this as the “interminable war on fiction,” and recount skirmish after skirmish. “Almost since the invention of print,” they write, “the campaign to turn reading into an instrument of moral purpose had concentrated its fire on fiction.” They mention one institution, for instance, who claimed novels were “one of the standing causes of insanity.”
But people tend to get what they want one way or another, and by the late nineteenth century between six and nine out of every ten books lent by public libraries were fiction.
Then, almost predictably, the tide had completely turned on fiction by the twentieth century. During World War II novels were part of the effort in keeping Allied morale strong and inculcating the sort of broad-minded liberalism opposed by the fascists. Once held in suspicion, fiction was now championed. (Author Molly Guptill Manning tells this story more fully in her excellent volume, When Books Went to War: The Stories That Helped Us Win World War II.)
Reduced to Ash
War amplifies the ups and downs of library fortunes. While readers were encouraged to use books as a means of resistance in World War II, books also became collateral damage and sometimes intentional targets of destruction.
With Allied bombers buzzing overhead, German librarians scrambled to protect their holdings. Early in the war they hoped for the best, though a 1941 raid on Kassel called that strategy into question; along with a munitions factory, bombers destroyed the library, incinerating 400,000 volumes. With attacks increasing in 1943, efforts to squirrel away literary treasures accelerated.
One Nazi research library in Frankfurt stashed a million volumes in thirty-eight separate locations, later recovered by Allies. Darmstadt sheltered some of its stock but still lost 400,000 books to attacks, including irreplaceable autograph manuscripts of Handel, Mozart, and Beethoven. Munich lost 800,000 books in one raid, and Leipzig publishers saw most of their inventories destroyed.
Of course, not counting the newly published titles, many of these books were stolen to begin with. German policy encouraged looting Jewish libraries; the Frankfurt library was entirely the product of plunder. That’s to say nothing of the innumerable books seized from invaded territories throughout Europe; whenever and wherever German soldiers marched, they stole books.
They also destroyed them. Russians were among the victims. “Russian scholars reckon that their libraries lost up to 100 million books,” report Pettegree and Weduwen. Russian troops seized millions of titles as compensation for their losses. Any books stashed by the Germans in areas that came under Soviet control were later shipped east as reparations. The Berlin state library alone gave up two million volumes.
Not that the Soviets knew how to manage the influx. Write Pettegree and Weduwen,
The brief period of Glasnost after 1989 brought the startling revelation that 2.5 million books, unsorted since the war, had simply been piled up in a church in Uzkoye. By this time they had degenerated into unreadable mush.
Nothing Is Forever
There is much more to Pettegree and Weduwen’s engrossing book: stories of library building and the social changes encouraged along the way. But one theme stands out at the end.
Opinions give life to books and inspire their collection; opinions also kill books. Every public contest over books banned in school reflects the basic struggle. Books exist in an ongoing conversation, but they are at a disadvantage. Books can’t speak for themselves beyond whatever words were entrusted to their pages by their authors. They require advocates to take up their cause.
One of the greatest arguments for inculcating broad liberal attitudes about reading is that there’s little stopping the more censorious among us from turning their attention to books you love next.
Thankfully, as Pettegree and Weduwen’s history shows, the tide seems to flow against the censors. That’s a point of encouragement. Things might look bleak one generation to the next, but the overarching picture is one of greater intellectual freedom and curiosity with books new and old available to inspire the quest.
But as their history also shows, nothing is forever.
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