Book burning, past and present

Essay by Denise Clarke.

A book is a loaded gun in the house next door. Who knows who might be the target of the well-read man? Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451, 1953 [1]
The British Museum’s thoroughly ambivalent rendering of the subject of its latest exhibition, I am Ashurbanipal, King of the World, King of Assyria, is perhaps best encapsulated in its curator’s description of the leader as, “a psychopathic bookworm”. Ruling over a vast 7th century BCE empire from his capital Nineveh – present day Mosul - Ashurbanipal presided over a ruthless war machine and the construction of the world’s first library to, “contain all the knowledge of the time”. Amidst a profusion of stone reliefs depicting almost nauseating images of massacre, execution and torture sit rows of tiny clay tablets, prisms and cylinders covered in spiky cuneiform script. Ashurbanipal himself is unfailingly depicted with a stylus for writing tucked under his belt. This juxtaposition is evidence of the critical importance of both image and word in the construction of Assyria’s history, memory and identity. Whilst this script was also central to the administration of the empire, the images can be read as an exercise in visual propaganda – a testament to the might and invincibility of an empire that rested on knowledge and the control of knowledge.

Panel Relief Ashurbanipal c.7th century BCE, Courtesy of Author

Panel Relief Ashurbanipal c.7th century BCE, Courtesy of Author

Within two decades of his death Ashurbanipal’s empire fell to the Babylonians. His library, described by the British Museum as his major contribution to world civilisation, was looted and torched destroying the building but not the clay tablets that simply hardened in the heat and were thus preserved albeit in fragmented form. As both the exhibition and associated talks make evident, the collection that remains is both superlative and enigmatic. It remains one of the most important collections of ancient texts but virtually nothing is known of its wider impact on the cultural and intellectual life in Assyria at this time. Walking through the exhibition what does become clear is the uncanny links between the fate of 7th century BCE Assyrian culture in Nineveh and 21st century events in its (replacement) Mosul. A film shown towards the end of the exhibition simulating the burning of Nineveh’s library could equally be a filmic representation of the methodological destruction of the central and university libraries in contemporary Mosul.[2]The former held not just government owned books and manuscripts but also “forbidden” books owned by wealthy families but nevertheless accessible to all. In the same year 2015, bookshops along the central Al-Nujaifi Street were systematically burned in the name of the self-proclaimed mini-caliphate established by ISIS.

Further south in Baghdad history was also repeating itself. During the 2003 US led invasion of Iraq the central library was looted and torched in an echo of 13th century library burning by Mongol invaders. An apocryphal account of the phenomenon holds that entire libraries including the famous Bayt al-Hikma (House of Wisdom) were thrown into the River Tigris to create a bridge for the invading army to cross during which time their ink bled out into the river draining them of all knowledge. In 2007 a bomb destroyed Al Mutannabi Street, the city’s historical literary district that had long acted as a meeting place for artists, writers and intellectuals from across the Arab world.

The burning of books and libraries clearly has a long and enduring history but what is it about books that attract such vengeful behaviour? Books, like visual art are the locus for powerful ideas. They bring with them the notion of speculation and are thus restless creatures carrying within them the potential for change. Books communicate these ideas and energies across physical and intellectual boundaries. It is therefore not surprising that they and their repositories, libraries, are so feared and targeted for destruction by conquerors and autocrats alike. But whilst visual images of their destruction occupy an iconic role in the popular imagination, several scholars suggest that the nature of book burning as we know it today is a relatively recent 20th century development. As argued, book burning in the past was “a function of conquest”. The symbolism we attach to it now finds its source in the defining moment of multiple book burnings across Germany by the Nazi Party in 1933 linked to the process of genocide. It marked the erasure of ideologically “unsound” knowledge, a means to place thought under control.

Despite the widespread assertion that the nature of book and library burning has changed markedly over time, several artists have engaged with and articulated new poetic and political links between past and present practices of book and library burning. At Documenta XIV in 2017, artist Marta Minujin recreated an earlier work that celebrated the fall of the military junta and the lifting of its censorship rules following the subsequent return of democracy to Argentina in 1983. The original Parthenon of Booksexists as a black and white photographic record of a project that documents the reconstruction of that most iconic symbol of the 5th century BCE Athenian polis (and western supremacy), the Parthenon. Fabricated out of metal tubes and wire mesh, the Parthenon of Bookswas covered in over 20,000 banned books donated by book publishers who had kept them hidden from the junta between 1976 and 1983. [3] Responding to Documenta’s brief requesting works that consider the relationship between Greece and Germany, Munujin recreated the Parthenon using over 100,000 books donated by the public from a shortlist compiled by the University of Kassel, of currently or recently banned books at various locations around the world. Staged at Friedrichplatz Park, Munujin links and loops between time and place, between ancient Athens as a symbol of freedom of expression and contemporary Kassel and the park as the previous site of Nazi book burning in May 1933.

Parthenon of Books, by Marta Minujin, 2017, Courtesy of the author

Parthenon of Books, by Marta Minujin, 2017, Courtesy of the author

Like Minujin’s work, Abigail Reynolds’ The Ruins of Time: Lost Libraries of the Silk Roadweaves time and place into new associations. Interrogating their conceptual and material form, books and libraries underpin Reynolds’ work, both as source material drawing inspiration from a wide range of literary sources and as sites of practice. She has an interest in their wilful destruction. Based on extensive research and inspired by the current resurrection of rearticulation of the Silk Road with its associations of travelling peoples and knowledge and reshaped power, Reynolds journeyed on motorbike for 5 months to 15 different sites spanning 2000 years of history, from 291 BCE to 2011 along its pathways. Unable to access sites in Iraq and Syria due to ongoing conflict, the artist moved between sites including Cairo and Alexandria, Tehran, Uzbekistan, China and Rome.

Reynolds conceives of libraries as “quivering with life”, democratic, non-commercial spaces where, “peoples’ voices travel through time”. Although she sees the journey itself as an artwork, her research is made manifest in several different artistic modes. As a film documenting her journey; photographs, several damaged through temporary confiscation and x-raying by concerned military officials en-route, a symbol perhaps of the disintegration of the sites; as written documentation in the form of a diary recording her experience of “cultural fog” when arriving in new locations; as a series of lattice-like geometric screens echoing structures she encountered as book storing devices or as barriers to viewing.

Reynolds’ work was displayed in several locations including as part of a retrospective shown simultaneously in Shoreditch, London: at Shoreditch Library, Peer Gallery whereWhen Words areForgotten - a tinted textured glass screen with metal frame meditates on the fragility and power of books as structures of knowledge and Bookartbookshop – London’s only bookshop specializing in artists’ books and small press publications. These locations link Reynolds’ work to her current concerns about the loss of library facilities in the UK due to local council funding cuts imposed by central government. As Reynolds notes, one sure way of undermining a community’s identity is to rid it of their books.

When Words are Forgotten, by Abigail Reynolds, 2018, courtesy of Artist

When Words are Forgotten, by Abigail Reynolds, 2018, courtesy of Artist

The contemporary loss of books and libraries is also a concern of artist Wafa Bilal. Born in Iraq and currently Associate Arts Professor at New York’s Tisch School of the Arts, Bilal’s artistic practice is informed by what he calls his “zone of comfort” in USA and his consciousness of the “zone of conflict” in Iraq. 168:01,Bilal’s artistic response to the destruction of Baghdad University Library, more specifically the loss of the entire Art Department’s books where Bilal himself studied, is a spectral monument to books lost and books yet to come. The title harks back to the length of time (7 days or 168 hours) it purportedly took for books to bleed out their ink in the river during the 13th century Mongol invasion with 01 representing a new beginning. His “participatory” installation begins as a long white bookcase filled with blank white books. Over the course of several exhibitions, viewers purchase the empty books, with monies received being used to purchase new educational books for the art department. These transactions have a post exhibition afterlife through online crowdfunding and an Amazon list as Bilal strives to both transform the installation and change the lives of students through a very contemporary mode of resistance through rebuilding.[4]

168:01 by Wafa Bilal, 2015-16, Courtesy of the author

168:01 by Wafa Bilal, 2015-16, Courtesy of the author

And rebuilding of libraries and book collections has also begun again in earnest in Mosul. Following the liberation of Mosul by Iraqi government forces in 2017, tens of thousands of book donations began arriving from around the world including over 5000 from individual donations and impoverished university libraries in the West Bank, Palestine in a show of cultural solidarity.[5]Close by Book Forum (Multaqi al-Kitab), a new literary café opened in January, Its walls are adorned by portraits of writers and poets of all stripes. As reported by Marta Bellingreri, it has quickly become a meeting place for students, writers, artists, intellectuals and young civil society activists organizing debates and workshops on peace-building and social reconciliation – books healing the wounds of war.[6] Books may be a loaded gun but as Bradbury also suggests,” Maybe the books can get us half out of the cave. They just might stop us from making the same insane mistakes.”

[1]Fahrenheit 451 is the temperature at which book-paper catches fire and burns.

[2]In a further linking of time and event, the University Library contained The Institute of Cuneiform set up to facilitate continuing excavations and research into Ashurbanipal’s library

[3]Minujin herself was so fearful of the regime that she threw out over 300 of her own books.

[4]The books requested range from the practical to the philosophical, the historical to the scientific. See



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