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The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts Hardcover – April 19, 2016
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**New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice**
“This is, simply, a fantastic story, one that has been beautifully told by Josh Hammer, who knows and loves Mali like some farmers know their back forty. At a time of unprecedented cultural destruction taking place across the Muslim world, Abdel Kader Haidara, the savior of Timbuktu's ancient manuscripts and this book's main character, is a true hero. If you are feeling despair about the fate of the world, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is a must-read, and a welcome shot in the arm.” (Jon Lee Anderson, author of The Fall of Baghdad)
“[The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu] has all the elements of a classic adventure novel [and] it is a story that couldn’t be more timely. . . . Suffice it to say that [the librarians] earn their “bad ass” sobriquet several times over. Riveting skullduggery, revealing history and current affairs combine in a compelling narrative with a rare happy ending.” (Seattle Times)
“The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu . . . vividly captures the history and strangeness of [Timbuktu] in a fast-paced narrative that gets us behind today’s headlines of war and terror. This is part reportage and travelogue . . . part intellectual history, part geopolitical tract and part out-and-out thriller." (Washington Post)
“I’ve long known that the versatile Joshua Hammer could drop into the midst of a war or political conflict anywhere in the world and make sense of it. But he has outdone himself this time, and found an extraordinary, moving story of a quiet—and successful—act of great bravery in the face of destructive fanaticism.” (Adam Hochschild, author of King Leopold's Ghost and To End All Wars)
“Part history, part scholarly adventure story and part journalist survey of the volatile religious politics of the Maghreb region. . . . Hammer writes with verve and expertise.” (New York Times Book Review)
"A picaresque and mysterious adventure that rushes across the strife-torn landscape of today’s Mali, The Bad-Ass Librarians tells the unlikely but very real story of a band of bookish heroes from Timbuktu and their desperate race—past dangerous checkpoints, through deserts, and often in the dead of night—to save a culture and a civilization from destruction. Josh Hammer has seen firsthand how ordinary people can respond with extraordinary heroism when faced with evil. He also gives us a dramatic example of what it means to stick with a story; he knows this one from the beginnings in the late 1300s up until the present day, with its extremism and acts of cultural repression and erasure. Hammer has an unerring sense of what matters and his storytelling is impassioned and fun at the same time." (Amy Wilentz, author of Farewell, Fred Voodoo)
"Gripping [and] ultimately moving. . . . History depends on whose stories get told and which books survive; in Timbuktu, thanks to Haidara and his associates, inquiry, humanity, and courage live on in the libraries." (Boston Globe)
"A completely engrossing adventure with a sharp--and prescient--political edge. Josh Hammer, a veteran correspondent of numerous conflict zones, tells a fascinating story about the quest to save Timbuktu’s priceless Islamic writings from the grasp of jihadists. This is an entertaining, and extremely timely, book about the value of art and history and the excesses of religious extremism." (Janet Reitman, author of Inside Scientology)
“Hammer has pulled off the truly remarkable here—a book that is both important and a delight to read. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is the wonderfully gripping story of Abdel Kader Haidara and the hundreds of ordinary Malians who, at great personal danger, endeavored to save the ancient fabled manuscripts of Timbuktu from destruction by Islamic jihadists. It is also an inspirational reminder that, even as the forces of barbarism extend their thrall across so much of the Muslim world, there are still those willing to risk everything to preserve civilization. A superb rendering of a story that needs to be told.” (Scott Anderson, author of Lawrence in Arabia)
About the Author
Joshua Hammer was born in New York and graduated from Princeton University with a cum laude degree in English literature. He joined the staff of Newsweek as a business and media writer in 1988, and between 1992 and 2006 served as a bureau chief and correspondent-at-large on five continents. Hammer is now a contributing editor to Smithsonian and Outside, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books, and has written for publications including the New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Vanity Fair, the Condé Nast Traveler, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Atavist. He is the author of four nonfiction books, including The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu, and has won numerous journalism awards. Since 2007 he has been based in Berlin, Germany, and continues to travel widely around the world.
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I first heard about Joshua Hammer's book as he was interviewed on the PBS Newshour, and I immediately ordered it. I am glad I did because it is a truly amazing story of how a man dedicated to saving the literary and religious heritage of his city and people saved it from destruction by the jihadists sweeping down into Mali to destroy it from Libya. After seeing what cultural destruction was wrought at the hands of jihadists in Afghanistan, there is no doubt that if Al Queda of the Islam Maghreb has found these documents they all would have been destroyed. They did destroy what they did find. But one librarian, Abdel Kader Haidara, prevented the destruction of Timbuktu's heritage. My deep thanks to Mr. Hammer for bringing us this story.
Now the quibble. I do not know who decides supporting documentation for non-fiction books. The person who decided that one incomplete map, incorrectly identified as a "map of Timbuktu" (it isn't; it's a map of Mali) as the front inside cover would be sufficient was quite wrong. Mali isn't a country that most people know well. It doesn't help much that throughout the entire book Timbuktu is spelled consistently as "Timbuktu", which is the usual spelling, but the map spells it as "Tombouctou". If this is the correct spell, use it. A detailed map w/ all the towns and cities mentioned in this book would have allowed readers to follow the story more easily. And if the consistently and correct and inform us. If the map had rivers on it, we could have followed the path the documents took as they were saved. It also would have been helpful to have had a street map of Timbuktu to see the layout of the building referenced in the story. And some photos of the buildings and people involved would have been useful. I suppose all of this was omitted to save costs and get the book published more quickly. I would have preferred to wait for them. The manuscript on the back inside cover is lovely.But there is absolutely nothing which identifies it other than a generic "manuscript page". That's helpful but not very. The story is told in bits and starts and could have used a better editor to smooth out the narrative. And I have no idea in the world why the title. It was clearly meat to make the book jump of the sales counters. But it is an odd note for a serious story. These may not seem like serious quibbles to other people, but they greatly hampered my enjoyment of this book.
Although completely necessary to the book, I did find that it bogged down in the politics. Who did what to whom. Who should've done this. Why this group moved here. It was eye-crossing after a while, but I soldiered through so I could thoroughly appreciate what Haidara and other people did.
Not many people would risk their lives to save a library, no matter how precious it was. We should all be thankful that men and women like Abdel Kader Haidara exist, and I for one am thankful that Joshua Hammer told their story.