"Splendidly articulate, informative and provoking....A book to be savored and gone back to."—Baltimore Sun
On the survival and destruction of knowledge, from Alexandria to the Internet. Through the ages, libraries have not only accumulated and preserved but also shaped, inspired, and obliterated knowledge. Matthew Battles, a rare books librarian and a gifted narrator, takes us on a spirited foray from Boston to Baghdad, from classical scriptoria to medieval monasteries, from the Vatican to the British Library, from socialist reading rooms and rural home libraries to the Information Age.
He explores how libraries are built and how they are destroyed, from the decay of the great Alexandrian library to scroll burnings in ancient China to the destruction of Aztec books by the Spanish—and in our own time, the burning of libraries in Europe and Bosnia.
Encyclopedic in its breadth and novelistic in its telling, this volume will occupy a treasured place on the bookshelf next to Baker's Double Fold, Basbanes's A Gentle Madness, Manguel's A History of Reading, and Winchester's The Professor and the Madman.
Battles, a contributor to Harper's and a Harvard librarian, offers a distinguished portrait of the library, its endurance and destruction throughout history, and traces how the library's meaning was questioned or altered according to the climate of the time. In accessible prose, Battles recounts the building and burning that have marked the library's long history. The Vatican Library built by Pope Nicholas V set the standard during the Renaissance, and the one built by the Jews in the Vilna ghetto during WWII showed the importance of books to a community under siege. Meanwhile, the mythic third-century B.C. book burnings by Chinese emperor Shi Huangdi were an effort to erase history, as was the catastrophic destruction of millions of books by the Nazis in the spring of 1933. Dynamic characters lend this history a novelistic tone: Julius Caesar began the library movement in Rome; Antonio Panizzi, an Italian revolutionary and exile, turned the library of the British Museum into one of the world's greatest in the 19th century; more recently, Nikola Koljevic, a scholar turned Serb nationalist, directed the siege of Sarajevo that led to a book burning at the Bosnian National and University Library. Battles also enlightens readers regarding the evolution of bookmaking, the card catalogue and the role of the librarian, including the most famous of all, Melvil Dewey, whose decimal system was only a small part of his influence. This always compelling history illustrates Battles's theme: despite the rule of barbarians or megalomaniacal kings, angry mobs and natural disasters, people's hunger for books has ensured the library's survival. 11 illus.