Books have been burned and writers have been persecuted through the ages. And yet you would expect that in these present times, which are often described in glowing terms as post-modernity, the savagery which in earlier phases of human existence sought to destroy all the good that man could bring forth would have drawn to a close. Not so. Think of the brutality visited upon Baghdad through the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq in 2003. In the days immediately following the fall of Baghdad, all the libraries and all the museums in the city were systematically looted. Vandals and thieves simply walked away with the books or put them to the torch.

The figures that speak to us of that bibliocaust are staggering. On 14 April 2003, a million books were burned in Baghdad's National Library. April 2003 was Iraq's cruellest month. That is the lesson you draw from a remembrance of the trauma the country was put into. It is a lesson which now comes to us from a clearly worried Fernando Baez. The exhaustive efforts he has put into A Universal History of the Destruction of Books: From Ancient Sumer to Modern Iraq are a necessary reminder of the gross philistinism perpetrated in history. Books were first destroyed in ancient Sumer, which today is part of southern Iraq, and they were destroyed again in Iraq.

In 2003, apart from the million books burned in the National Library in Baghdad, as many as 10,000,000 registries dating back to republican and Ottoman times were burned to ashes. In Basra, where British soldiers had taken charge, the Museum of Natural History, the Central Public Library and the Islamic Library were all razed to the ground. At the height of the Bosnian crisis in 1999, the National Library in Sarajevo was firebombed. Altogether 1.5 million volumes were burned to cinders. Go back in time. In the 17th century, Sabbatai Zevi, a false messiah whom many happened to regard at the time as a proper Jewish mystic, let it be known that a destruction of Holy Scriptures would bring about a new era of peace and happiness in the world. And this is what he said to those who would listen: 'To burn a book is to bring light to the world.'

The great truth about books is that they are generally written by brave people. The bravery, of course, consists in the unconventional points of view they put across, points of view which are also embedded in the secret recesses of millions of hearts. If you have read Frank Harris' My Life and Loves, you will know. In Lady Chatterley's Lover, D.H. Lawrence does the bold thing of presenting unadulterated physical lust as the reality in life. It is raw seduction, a full-blown satisfaction of desires he gives vent to in the novel. The self-righteous of course thought it was all so vulgar.

Salman Rushdie wrote a disturbing book he called The Satanic Verses. It was bad in language, bad in taste, bad in the choice of subject matter. The ayatollahs in Tehran only made things worse when they decided, in this day and age, that Rushdie's head needed to be sliced away from the rest of him. Well, he was not beheaded, as we can see. He has been knighted and is feasted everywhere he goes in the western world. The more important thought is that if you do not like a book, if you disagree with it, you can do either of two things: you stop reading it or you do not read it at all.

But let us go back to Baez, for he tells you that biblioclasty has been part of the tradition philosophers and erudite men have built over the centuries. Constantinople was founded by Constantine I in 330. Listen to Baez: 'Without its contribution to the transmission of ancient texts, we would probably not have the works of Plato, Aristotle, Herodotus, Thucydides, or Archimedes --- to name just a few.' Indeed, bibliophilia became a passion with the Byzantine Empire and made its presence felt in all fields of life. But then came danger, when in 1453, Turkish troops commanded by Sultan Mahomet entered Constantinople and sacked the city for three days. Thousands were murdered; and churches, icons and manuscripts were destroyed. Edward Gibbon would later note that 120,000 manuscripts were tossed into the sea.

Hitler and his regime presided over the destruction of books in 1933 and after. In 1935, the Nazis, with Goebbels in charge of ensuring aesthetic purification, prepared a list of 524 authors whose works were not to be read in Germany. The Nazis would not stop there, prompting Sigmund Freud into telling a journalist: 'In the Middle Ages, they would have burned me. Now they're happy burning my books.'

German forces captured one country after another. Fifteen million books were lost in Poland. German aerial bombardment did not spare even Britain between 1940 and 1942. As many as 100,000 books were lost when the Coventry library came under attack. The British Museum lost a quarter of a million books along with 30,000 volumes of newspapers. In Dresden, as the end of the war approached, 300,000 books turned to ashes. Frankfurt lost 550,000 books and 440,000 doctoral theses. In distant Japan, the rare collection of classical books in the library in Nagasaki was gone when the United States dropped an atomic bomb on the city.

Under the Franco regime in Spain, libraries were confiscated and writers like Marx, Engels, Mao, Henry Miller and D.H. Lawrence were turned into non-persons. In Chile, following the military coup of 11 September 1973, the works of Pablo Neruda, Gonzalo Drago and Leonardo Espinoza were ruined. In Argentina, 1.5 million books were dumped in August 1980 on some vacant lots in Buenos Aires, to be doused with gasoline and set on fire.

Writers have lived in fear of the state. And, surprisingly, they have done so when reputed bibliophiles happened to hold sway. Josef Stalin and Adolf Hitler were both avid readers and possessed libraries they were truly proud of. It is said that Hitler's personal library was stacked with more than 16,000 volumes. And yet Hitler remains infamous for ordering the most comprehensive assault on books not only in Germany but in every country he conquered in Europe. In the Soviet Union, Stalin was fond of quoting eminent writers before his fellow revolutionaries. He read deeply and constantly and yet it was in his era, during the purges of the 1930s, that writers suffered at the hands of his increasingly brutal regime as they had never suffered before.

Vaclav Havel's works were proscribed by the communists in Czechoslovakia. Buddhadev Bose's books were considered obscene by the authorities in India. Genghis Khan's nomad army went on a rampage across Iraq, Iran and part of today's Turkestan. Books were burned in the mosque in Bokhara, in Nisapur and in Merv. The Mongols under Hulagu Khan reached Baghdad in 1257 and, having murdered thousands of people, supervised the destruction of all manuscripts in the library.

Fernando Baez speaks for all of us again. 'Books are burned and libraries bombed because they are symbols,' he asserts plaintively. He goes on: '"Biblioclast", a neologism used to refer to the destruction of books, is an attempt to annihilate a memory considered to be a direct or indirect to another memory thought superior.'

It all makes one wonder.

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