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Books on Fire: The Destruction of Libraries throughout History Hardcover – August 13, 2007

3.3 out of 5 stars 10 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

In his acclaimed Double Fold (2001), Nicholson Baker expressed outrage over newspapers and books turned into landfill by librarians who chose microfilm over paper. French historian Polastron picks up where Baker left off, writing with equal passion yet punctuating his pages with wit. A specialist in Chinese and Arab studies, Polastron surveys the annihilation of libraries from ancient Mesopotamia and China to potential problems looming with the cyber contents of today's virtual books.Although Polastron learned of lost libraries while writing a history of paper, it was the 1992 destruction of the National Library in Sarajevo that triggered his desire to explore all nooks and crannies of history in the attic of every civilization.Over the millennia, libraries crumbled to rubble during wars and bombings; theft and storage problems account for more losses. As countless books went up in smoke, others sank to a watery grave during shipwrecks and floods. Lamenting the loss of the ancient Alexandria library, the author covers books that perished during the Inquisition, the French Revolution and in Nazi Germany. Polastron's exhaustive research and vast scope make this detailed, authoritative study a revelatory read. (Oct. 26)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Review

"The political, religious, and psychological motives for eradicating knowledge are explored by Polastron here, and he notes many faith traditions believe a  primordial library existed before the world, itself." (Today's Books, Nov 2007)

"Polastron performs marvelous feats of synthesis and revelation as he describes the lost libraries of antiquity . . . . (Donna Seaman, Booklist, Oct 2007)

"Livres en feu is Lucien X. Polastron's magisterial history of the destruction of books and libraries over the millennia. Thoroughly impressive in scope, Polastron's work takes the reader on a journey from ancient Mesopotamia to modern day times, when just recently Iraq's national library was pillaged during the U.S.invasion." (French Publisher's Agency)

" . . . an eye-opening, involving read for any general-interest bibliophile and will make an excellent general lending library pick." (The Midwest Book Review,  Dec 07)

"Polastron's book is a valuable contribution to the literature on libraries. It is scholarly to a degree, as well as wry, witty, gossipy, and polemic. . . . [He] is obviously devoted to libraries and determined to record the varied faces of the barbarism that threatens to decimate them." (Rebecca Knuth, The Times Higher Education Supplement in the UK, Dec 07)

" . . . the point to all this is that librarians, archivists, and other information professionals need to work together to ensure that the new digital forms represent enhancements to the way society can tap into its legacy of information and evidence." (Richard J. Cox, Reading Archives)

"More than book burning, more than mutilation, this story traces what happens to knowledge that is considered unsuitable by the authorities . . . because educated people are harder to control! The author's fine preface sets the pace for the book and what is to come." (Lee Prosser, ghostvillage.com)

"The author's indignation burns white hot, but does not obscure his comprehensive survey of book destruction worldwide--Asia and Africa as much as the Western world." (David Keymer, Library Journal)

"A Parisian and a scholar specializing in Chinese and Arab studies, Polastron was inspired to write about the destruction of libraries after the burning of the National Library in Sarajevo in 1992." (Jeff Minick, Smoky Mountain News, Apr 2008)

"In addition to an intensive survey of book destruction as policy, Books on Fire provides a splendid education in book collecting as a passion--as well as book production, library management, and great bibliophiles and their collections. . . . Jon E. Graham’s masterful translation and the author’s helpful chronology enhance this book." (Peter Skinner, Foreword Magazine, Sept-Oct 2007)

" . . . [examines] the newest danger facing free reading: digitalization. No longer a temple, the new Internet library is a collection of 'virtual books' made available by on-line publishers whose interests are largely profits and not the sharing of learning." (Gail Lord, Spirit of Change, Vol. 21, No. 103, Spring 2008)

"After reading Books on Fire, the fact that any ancient knowledge was transmitted in books through all the centuries of war, religious intolerance, societal indifference, pure accident and sheer bungling seems miraculous." (Vincent Tinguely, Ascent Magazine, Issue 37, Jan 2008)

"This welcome addition to the topic of annihilated libraries, authored by a noted French historian and prolific writer, presents a cornucopia of historical events and noted people (builders and destroyers of libraries) in dozens of countries from Asia, Africa, Europe, and North America during a four-millennia span . . . Recommended for public, special, and academic libraries, and of course, as professional reading for librarians at large." (Vladimir F. Wertsman, New York Public Library, MultiCultural Review, Vol. 17, No. 1, Spring 08)

"All of us, especially in academic libraries today, surely ought to be gravely concerned about what might be an even greater danger from electronic books. There's an ongoing debate on their possible detrimental psychological effects, and how they affect the actual process of learning and the purpose of education as our culture has traditionally conceived of it." (Nancy McCormack, Head of the Lederman Law Library and assistant professor of law at Queen's Universi)

". . . his [Polastron's} story is an important one and deserves wide readership, especially for us in the business of libraries and librarianship." (The Haworth Press, Inc, Collection Management, Dec 2009)

"Polastron's exhaustive research and vast scope make this detailed, authoritative study a revelatory read." (Publisher's Weekly, July 16, 2007)

"A book on the subject of books - not only about books, but about the burning of books and libraries - might give the impression of being dull and boring. That is far from the case with Books on Fire . It is a fascinating account of the destruction of the world’s greatest libraries that will haunt the dreams of bibliophiles who read it . . . . Highly recommended." (Douglas R. Cobb, Curled Up With A Good Book, Sept 2007)

"If you are lover of the printed word, this book will open your eyes, and most likely shock you." (Mike Gleason, alt.religion.wicca, Sept 4, 2007)

"This book contributes to a new understanding of the devastation caused by book burning. Every reader's worst nightmare is recorded with horrid fascination." (Fernando Báez, author of A Universal History of the Destruction of Books)

"Polastron performs marvelous feats of synthesis and revelation as he describes the lost libraries of antiquity; portrays such library makers as the Sumerian Ashurbanipal, the caliph al-Hakam (circa 970), and Liu Bang, founder of the Han dynasty; chronicles dramatic assaults against libraries; and offers discerning analysis, backed by rarely aired facts, about the crucial role books play as both vehicles of knowledge and freedom and instruments of tyranny" (Donna Seaman, Booklist, Oct 15, 2007)

"Polastron traces the history of this subject in an informative way, never reducing or limiting the importance of the loss of so much knowledge merely to dates and numbers of volumes lost . . . It is a fascinating account of the destruction of the world's greatest libraries that will haunt the dreams of bibliophiles who read it like the best horror novels of Stephen King or Clive Barker." (Curled Up with a Good Book, Sept 2007)

"A 'must-have' history for public libraries and the shelf of any book lover." (The Midwest Book Review, Oct 2007)

" . . . penned by a skilled writer who knows that the best way to convey history is by letting the reader in on behind the scenes descriptions, gossip, and scandal. . . . . I highly recommend Books on Fire to the historian, the literary enthusiast, and to all champions of free thought. Books on Fire is a sheer pleasure to peruse." (Jeff Farrow, gnostics.com, Nov 2007)

"The exhaustively researched Books on Fire is a comprehensive and authoritative historical survey of the destruction of knowledge from ancient Babylon and China to modern times." (SirReadaLot.org, Sep 07)

"[A] comprehensive survey of book destruction worldwide--Asia and Africa as much as the Western world. . . . Recommended for academic collections and larger public libraries." (David Keymer, Library Journal, Oct 2007)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Inner Traditions (August 13, 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594771677
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594771675
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.4 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,259,914 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
When I first took this book out of its mailing container I thought: "Gee, it's damaged. How could that have happened in a cardboard box?" Then I looked more closely & realized that the jacket of the book was cleverly designed to give the appearance of its having been burned. So that right off can't help but stir a potential reader's interest.

BOOKS ON FIRE is a historical examination of book burning & the destruction of famous(and not so famous) libraries. The work is penned by a skilled writer who knows that the best way to convey history is by letting the reader in on behind the scenes descriptions, gossip & scandal. For example, the opening chapter deals with the fabled Library of Alexandria under the imported Ptolemy dynasty (that concluded with the death of Cleopatra.) I have been studying this historic period for some time now, but Lucien X. Polastron sprinkles this section of his work with wonderful little tidbits that were new to me, and that also shed new light on this fascinating moment in time.

Regarding The Library of Alexandria, author Lucien X. Polastron quotes Hugh Lloyd-Jones: "If this Library had survived, the dark ages, despite the preponderance of Christianity, could have been considerably lighter."

Polastron opens each chapter with a short, pithy and/or poetic quotes from diverse sources. For example, the author opens Chapter 3 with this quote from Alexander Pope commenting on public book burning "Heavens, what a pile! Whole ages perish there, And one bright blaze turns learning into air."

BOOKS ON FIRE was originally written in French, and is well served by Jon E. Graham's impeccable & colloquial perfect English translation.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
At first, I found the author's style turgid. But I was mesmerized by the sheer volume of fascinating and scholarly details, so I persisted. As I became immersed in this wonderful book, I also became accustomed to the author's blend of sly asides and wry commentary and his vast scope and depth of information. I recognized that my initial reaction reflected on me and not this book.

Bibliophiles will feel pang after pang as the relentless destruction of the world's libraries, including everything from Sumerian texts to modern-day digitization, is chronicled. Others will feel a chill to realize how fragmentary is the history of human thought. This book suggests that the majority of human literary and scholarly works are lost, via a long history of destruction. It was humbling to me to ponder that, though people in 2008 assume that we are the inheritors of a long, cumulative history of learning, in reality, we just know of the random scraps remaining from a great and tragic decimation.

This book changed my view on the history of human thought. The author spent ten years researching it, and the resulting deeply rich work is a stellar accomplishment that I will return to again and again.
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While I agree with much of what Mr. Van Deuten posted in his review, I do see some utility to the work.

Yes, the work needs editing. Yes, the author often just pushes through a litany of destruction with only the barest commentary other than to announce his disgust and anger. Yes, the work is uneven in its coverage and often too willing to interject angry and colorful opinion in lieu of more detail and background.

However, I do think he has a good bibliography, and as a jumping off point to other works and further research it is useful. For example, the section on the destruction of Chinese books was the most thorough work i had read in book form of the cyclic literary purges in that nation. I will certainly look for more thorough works on that subject, with a bit more knowledge of people and dates than I had before.

One clear point that the author made was that the destruction of writings does go hand in hand with the destruction of people. I do think that more focused works, such as the loss of books in ancient times or in China or in modern Europe will work better for more advanced students of book history.
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Format: Hardcover
The book's jacket draws us in with the observation that, "almost as old as the idea of the library is the urge to destroy it." One should not be fooled by this statement into thinking that the purposeful destruction of libraries will be the author's primary thesis. Indeed, purposeful, malicious, destruction is but a small subset of the author's work. The majority of his effort is devoted to recounting for us the loss, and manner of loss, of, what seems at times, to be every book in history, regardless if this book was lost because of accidental water damage, or age, or because a book seller couldn't rid themselves of it to a customer. In short, the author is not concerned with restricting himself to books that have been prosecuted against, or unique volumes, but all books in general.

With such a scope it is unsurprising that the writing dull. By page 50 we have already become so desensitized to another 50,000 volumes being lost that we hardly care. Moreover, as Polastron doesn't make an effort to create a context in which these books were destroyed, the true tragedy, if there is one, is lost upon us.

Working through the first 100 pages one may be forgiven for having the impression that this book was written for classics majors. So many individuals in so many diverse periods of history are mentioned that the book would be impossible to follow intelligently without a trained background in Greek, Roman, and Middle Eastern history. Certainly for those with this background the book may be of interest as a reference guide. Those less fortunate should not expect the author to spend time bringing them up to speed. The most he'll say is that so-and-so is "famous", ergo we should care, though why that individual is famous will remain a mystery.
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