College Quarterly
Winter 2010 - Volume 13 Number 1
Reviews A Universal History of the Destruction of Books
Fernando Báez
New York: Atlas & Co., 2008

Reviewed by Howard A. Doughty

Newt Gingrich was ebullient. In fact, he was high as a kite, not on illicit substances but on ideas. He had been hanging around with Alvin Toffler, the ur-futurist of the late twentieth century who had, in sequence, promoted the notions of future shock and the third wave, two very popular paeans to the coming information society. He also prognosticated, in Learning for Tomorrow on the future of education. It was a book of that which Gingrich doubtless held close to his bosom when he confidently predicted that, by the year 2000, there would be no more books in the classroom, only computers.

Mr. Gingrich was wrong, but not as wrong as I, for one, might have liked. Under the banner of information technology, an all-out propaganda war against the print and paper has been carried out in favour of Googling, tweeting and texting. As a result, students assemble masses of information that they may not comprehend nor be able to place in any kind of comprehensive or even chronological context. Worse, descriptions and explanations of topics in literature, philosophy and the hard and soft sciences may as well be retired if they require more than 140 characters to express.

In this rather cowardly new world, the tragedy of book burning is unrecognized as a real event. Whether it is the sacred texts of alien religions, the subversive content of political ideologues or just plain old pornography, we have become eerily indifferent to attacks on free speech, and there can be no greater attack than the censorship of ideas expressed in grammatically correct sentences, arranged in coherent paragraphs and placed between the two covers of a book.

Fernando Báez is no friend of Newt Gingrich. His opinions about electronic communications technology are unknown to me, but his devotion to books is not. Báez is the Director General of the National Library of Venezuela, so he is probably on the outs with Gingrich on a number of political and philosophical points. He has certainly been on the outs with the government of the United States of America. The USA, you see, has denied Fernando Báez the right to cross its border in order to speak about free speech. Much of what he wanted to discuss is contained in A Universal History of the Destruction of Books.

In its English translation, Báez has assembled a chronicle of wickedness from the smashing of ancient Sumerian tablets to the ransacking of the Iraqi National Museum in Baghdad on 10 April, 2003, following the American-led invasion and occupation of that fabled, ill-fated city.

I use the word “wickedness” advisedly, because the wanton and willful destruction of books and, indeed, of knowledge in any form is sinful (or as close to “sinful” as this decidedly secular humanist can imagine). Whether carried out by archaic pagans, medieval Christians and Muslims or contemporary thugs and thieves, the burning and banning of books is a perverse denial of what is most honourable in the human project. Báez writes that the destruction of books, as a chronic theme in human history, is strange testimony to their importance and the ideas they contain. “By destroying,” he says, “man ratifies this ritual of permanence, purification and concentration; by destroying, man brings to the surface a behavior originating in the depth of his personality.” On the surface, we may hope it can be cauterized, not by flames but by the light of intelligence. Meanwhile, the books themselves must be understood as our enduring defence against the loss of our collective memory and groping efforts toward self-understanding.

Báez has composed a meticulously researched and encyclopedic account of obduracy, stupidity and fear. His book, of course, is only a part (though an important part) of his continuing work. An advisor to UNESCO on matters of “cultural destruction,” he has also taught at some of the most prestigious universities in México, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, Spain, France, Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Australia and England where he has researched and written about censorship world-wide. It is in Iraq, however, that Báez’s account gains its greatest poignancy. There, in the birthplace of human writing and of the book, Western soldiers looked on indifferently as books, manuscripts and priceless works of art were looted; they had been ordered to protect only oil-producing facilities.

A Universal History of the Destruction of Books is not simply an historical account of human madness. It raises important theoretical questions about our species. Báez speculates about some of the deeper motives for book burning. Whether his discussion of the motives for violence reveals anything profound about humanity is not something to be discussed here. Báez seems to hold the view that mankind has a destructive impulse which has something to do with a need for “purification and consecration.” As it happens, I recently re-read Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth and noticed something of a connection. I leave it to others, however, to come to terms with such matters. For me, the lament for the consequences of pandering to our lesser angels is enough.

Howard A. Doughty teaches in the Faculty of Applied Arts and Health Sciences at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. He can be reached at


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