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Book Burning

Fernando Báez has a fixation with books. This comes through in the introduction to A Universal History of the Destruction of Books, his account of the ways books have been destroyed throughout the globe, when he relates an anecdote from his childhood about a flood that destroyed the library in his town, the “object of his curiousity.” “Sometimes, on the nights that followed, I dreamt Stevenson’s Treasure Island sank, while one of Shakespeare’s plays floated,” he writes, continuing, “I never got over that terrible experience.”

In fact, not only did he not get over the loss of the books; it still staggers him. He employs the word “horror” enough times throughout Universal History to clue us in that the loss of books cannot be expressed. Why? Because it is the total loss toward which time passes, the real end of history. This haunts him and (seemingly) consumes him. It’s (again, seemingly) an antipassion.

The catalog of book destruction he has amassed since reflects as much. When he turns his eye to familiar events, what he focuses on can be jarring. His description of historical touchstones like the sinking of the Titanic or the fall of Constantinople is made up of notes on the number of volumes lost, which famous bibliophiles lost their libraries. You get the sense that the loss of texts take precedence over drowning or pillaging—or perhaps you don’t. But there is definitely the sense that he feels the loss of books more than he does that of other facets of history’s nightmare parade.

And this sense, that he is so fixated on books, brings to the fore the almost autistic impulse that motivates Báez to exhaust the possibilities of book destruction. He proceeds: These are the sorts of books; these are the ways each can be destroyed; these have been the ways that those possibilities have been actualized; etc. At times, this makes for the stuff of insight: the prevalence of flood myths in the civilizations of alluvial plains takes on special meaning once you understand how the common medium for the storage of texts, clay tablets, was especially vulnerable to water. Not only did floods destroy crops and displace towns, they disintegrated the medium of cultural memory. That made their waters, perhaps, all the more frightening.

And then there are the moments in book destruction that were so successful, so complete, that you have never heard of them. Like the instance of the destruction of Mayan and Aztec codices. The loss was so total, so totally carried out—by zealous priests and conquistadores—that less than twenty books survived; none of them, as of the edition of Báez’s book I read, were currently housed in Mexico.

Categories: Notes.

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