A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World , by Nicholas A. Basbanes. HarperCollins, 444 pages, $29.95.
In 1562, a Franciscan friar who had accompanied Spanish troops to Mexico ordered the burning of thousands of Mayan hieroglyphic books, in an attempt to eradicate the repository of local spiritual beliefs and to pave the way for Christianity. In one afternoon, practically the entire record of a civilization had been turned to ashes; only four codices are known to have survived. In 1914, the German Army invaded the Belgian city of Louvain, a treasure house of Gothic and Renaissance architecture. In an act of no military significance whatsoever, Louvain’s magnificent library of 300,000 volumes, which included nearly a thousand irreplaceable illuminated manuscripts, was burned to the ground. (“At Louvain,” said a man who watched it happen, “Germany disqualified itself as a nation of thinkers.”) More recently, during its psychopathic reign in Cambodia in the mid-1970’s, Pol Pot’s regime destroyed nearly all of ancient Cambodia’s manuscripts and monuments. In its rage against modernity and civilization, the Khmer Rouge went so far as to examine ordinary citizens for marks on the bridge of the nose, the telltale sign of reading glasses-which was enough to bring down a death sentence.
In two earlier books, A Gentle Madness: Bibliophiles, Bibliomanes, and the Eternal Passion for Books (1995), and Patience and Fortitude: A Roving Chronicle of Book People, Book Places, and Book Culture (2001), journalist and book addict Nicholas Basbanes explored the curious universe of book collectors, an oddly riveting place full of passion, skullduggery and misadventure-like a good mystery novel. In his new book, Mr. Basbanes leaves behind the fragrance of fine leather bindings and the Oxbridge atmosphere of finely arched library rooms; he fixes his eye instead on the killing fields of cultural elimination. From the razing of Carthage to the Serbian leveling of Bosnian repositories, he examines the bonfires that have consumed entire centuries of man’s musings on matters great and small.
If books are not the most perishable products of human civilization, they have, throughout recorded history, attracted the homicidal attentions of every conquering army. In large-scale versions of the penalty the Romans called damnatio memoriae, a punishment for individuals found guilty of committing crimes against the state which involved erasing every reference-whether on stone, in a monument or on parchment- to the person in question, invaders have settled not just for mass murder of the local citizenry, but have indulged in the wholesale disappearance of every written trace of a culture (as the Taliban did to non-fundamentalist Afghans), a language (as the Normans did to the Saxons), a people (as the Romans did to the Etruscans). Early Christian and medieval monks attacked the memory of non-Christian culture with zealous efficiency.
The English critic Holbrook Jackson defined bibliophobia as not just fear of books, but a fear of what books may do. Fear of paganism, fear of eroticism-plain old fear of the other-piled hundreds of thousands of manuscripts and books onto the bonfire. George Orwell was true to history when he wrote, in 1984, “Who controls the past controls the future; who controls the present controls the past.”
Mr. Basbanes is also interested in the current deplorable state of library acquisition and especially de-accession, and the second half of his book is set in modern times, dealing with newer forms of book assassination. Nicholson Baker’s acidic attack, in his book Double Fold, on the concept of library de-accession, which targeted in particular the San Francisco Public Library, is more gently echoed here. Mr. Basbanes cites, with an engaging mix of incredulity and despair, the current quest by libraries for more ready cash, and their lack of historical context and a full understanding of the cultural and historical worth of their holdings. (Amazon.com’s recent announcement that it would help the British Library sell off 2.5 million unwanted books from its collection proves his point.) He weighs the pros and cons of electronic publishing and record retention and covers, in an amiably inquisitive way, scholars’ and professional librarians’ claims about the benefits and liabilities to books of current technological advances. Anyone who laments the passing of real card catalogs, which have been replaced by (often poorly functioning) electronic systems, will find in the second half of A Splendor of Letters an appalling confirmation of their fears.
Despite the many stories of loss, destruction and defacement, this is in no way a grim or despairing book. As he has proved so ably before, Mr. Basbanes is an elegant, wry and humane writer, a lover of all things printed and bound. No other writer has traced the history of the book so thoroughly or so engagingly, with such a warm human touch. The thrill of finding the last extant example of a printing; the physical pleasure that comes from handling a finely bound volume; the joy of sharing book lore or a chase lost or a rumor to be followed up with another of the “gently mad,” that band of happy collectors who form a protective network around the globe: These experiences and more give Mr. Basbanes plenty of room in which to show readers why books matter, and how they will-despite a fearsome array of antagonists-survive.
And, of course, there’s time for many bibliophilic tidbits. Here’s a quick sample. The great English politician William Gladstone read an average of 250 books a year as an adult, and wrote an essay on how to design and arrange a home library. The Lindisfarne Gospels, the 10th-century Beowulf codex, the sole surviving copy of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and the unique copy of William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman were all saved from destruction by the same man, 17th-century antiquarian Sir Robert Cotton. Not one literary or historical document of Etruscan origin has survived, not even in Greek or Roman translation. There is no known original manuscript of any work by Molière, nor have any poetry manuscripts by Edmund Spenser or Andrew Marvell ever been found. Charles Lamb included in his catalog of “books which are not books”-and therefore not readable-scientific treatises and almanacs. Norway has established a book repository in a series of tunnels hollowed deep into a mountainside in the Arctic Circle, where every book written in Norwegian is frigidly preserved, secure from the predations of the outside world.
The publisher’s flap copy announces that A Splendor of Letters is the final volume in Mr. Basbanes’ series of books about books and bibliophiles. I can only hope that this is not the case, and that the author will delve into his Santa’s bag of rich anecdotes and historical gems to produce another delightfully written book on this compulsively readable subject.
André Bernard is the vice president and publisher of Harcourt.