Book Review: Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack by Richard Ovenden

Knowledge is power: and throughout history libraries have been the place where knowledge has been stored. It’s no coincidence that when libraries and books come under attack, horrors usually follow—when we forget our past we’re doomed to relive it. This book covers some of these barbaric times in human history where great libraries and the works of fiction, science and history within were destroyed, lost to time, sometimes forever. 

Richard Ovenden is the director of the world-famous twenty-eight Bodleian Libraries at Oxford. He has spent his professional life championing the cause of libraries, against a backdrop of government spending cuts and the rise of digital technologies that many argue (wrongly of course) threaten to make them obsolete. 

His fascinating book covers some of the most infamous incidents of knowledge coming under attack from wars, despots and totalitarian regimes, as well as simply the mists of time. The history is deep and layered—as well as covering the destruction of knowledge we also learn about the efforts of future historians to find these buried books and ancient stories and restore them.

We start in Iraq in the 1850s, with discovery of the palace of King Ashurbanipal, and the ancients libraries of Nimrod and Nineveh. Then to to the library at Alexandria, of course to the rise of Nazism, and then finally to the challenges that new digital data poses today – far from a utopic future of democratised data access, new technologies increasingly place ownership of data in the hands of the most powerful in society. 

But all knowledge throughout history was destroyed maliciously. The library of Alexandria shows how lack of funds and care can cause eventual decline, leading to works being lost and destroyed forever. Our knowledge may seem immutable but it isn’t, when we stop caring for it, it will disappear, and society will suffer for it. 

At times gutting, others inspirational, this book will remind everyone of the value of libraries and knowledge and the important responsibility we have to preserve them, especially in the digital age.

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