Wednesday 30 September 2020

Burning the Books

Burning the Books: A history of knowledge under attack by Richard Ovenden 


Ovenden writes of the importance of knowledge and creative thought. 


The Benedictine monks of Canterbury preserved the writing of the Greek philosophers such as Aristotle, Ovid, Soppho – “most were destroyed by that fat oaf Henry VIII – the manuscripts were sold off to local grocers to wrap their wares.”


“But all too often civilization, with its many book and competing ideas, has presented a feeble self-doubt in the face of marching fanaticism. A reading culture is multiple, full of competing viewpoints. The fanatic surveys the world with a monochrome simplicity, and before advancing to burning people, always begins with books, statures and memory.”


The great library of the ancient world at Alexandria, with thousands of scrolls. Many were lost in a fire during Caesars’ campaign and destroyed by religious extremists – both Christian and early Muslims, who despised other narratives. Legend says the scrolls were used to heat the 4,500 baths of Alexandria’s lasted 6 months. 


Today we have control by tech companies – “the worlds memory has now been outsourced to these companies without society realising the fact or really being able to comprehend the consequences.”

Rather than enforcement, the better way is through education and teaching philosophy. Knowledge is the key. So is freedom of speech. Now we have speech censorship and safe spaces in universities. We must beware censorship, while also hate speech must not be allowed. We must beware the blind and ignorant fanatic. 


I believe change can’t occur on the grand scale – but rather with those small ripples we send out on the small scale. Its about changing the system too and having a government used to working in a consensual way and collaborating – and not as the UK government with its 2 man show used to pushing their weight around. 


As the caliph Omar said, with impeccable logic, “If these books of the Greeks agree with the book of God, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”

There is the awful image of the young German students burning books in Berlins Unter den Linden in 1933, with Goebbels boasting about ‘wanting to commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.’ We must beware censorship.


Knowledge and philosophy, libraries, bookshops and education are the key to a better future.

Stalin had a philosophy steamer expel all the creative thinkers and artists. Because independent, creative art and thought is a threat to dictators everywhere. Scarily we also have the rise of fierce extremists’ echo chambers and thought police on social media and big Tech platforms. There is so much out there – we must check who are sources actually are.


Ovenden is head librarian at the Bodleian oxford and devoted to the preservation of books – a key tool in the defence of open societies. 


Fanatics burn knowledge