Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack

Timothy Rybeck:

Three infamous conflagrations illuminate the pages of Richard Ovenden’s fascinating new history, Burning the Books. The first is the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria, which, according to Ovenden, did not go up in a single blaze but was gradually destroyed by repeated acts of arson and plunder, until there was nothing left but a metaphor. The second is the burning of the US Library of Congress by the British in 1814, when soldiers’ faces were ‘illumined’ by the flames. ‘I do not recollect to have witnessed, at any period in my life,’ a British soldier said, ‘a scene more striking or sublime.’ The third burning is certainly the best known: the Nazi Bücherverbrennungen that followed Hitler’s rise to power. ‘The 10 May 1933 book-burning was merely the forerunner of arguably the most concerted and well-resourced eradication of books in history,’ Ovenden writes.