The history of book burning


A new study of the destruction of knowledge explores how societies depend on fragile archives. 

It must be the case that Richard Ovenden’s new work was completed before the world found itself in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, so some chapters in Burning the Books seem eerily prescient. “The idea that information must be diffused and made available to the public if government was to be open to correction also began to be understood,” he writes of 17th-century England, when prominent intellectuals promoted the collection of social statistics to stabilise governmental structures and ensure the prosperity and contentment of the population. He goes on to address the Bills of Mortality for London, documents listing the number of deaths and analysing the causes of them. As the diaries of Samuel Pepys confirm, citizens used that information to manage and modify their own behaviour – most notably in 1665 and 1666, when London was in the grip of the bubonic plague. “This end of the town every day grows very bad of the plague,” Pepys wrote on 29 June, 1665. “The Mortality bill is come to 267, which is about 90 more than the last: and of these, but four in the City – which is a great blessing to us.”

So Pepys, at home in the City precincts of Seething Lane, felt the blessing of relative safety; as perhaps did citizens far from the East Midlands as they saw Leicester go into local lockdown in late June after a spike in coronavirus cases there. Our safety depends not only on our exposure to the virus but on how much we trust the information supplied to us, and how we are able to access that information. In these first decades of the 21st century, we seem beset by a generalised corruption of information, in part because we are so overwhelmed by the stuff. In a typical minute last year, Ovenden writes, around the world 18.1 million text messages were sent, 87,500 people were tweeting, and 390,000 apps were downloaded. How to tell information from “fake news” is an urgent problem brought even more sharply into focus by a pandemic that has already cost more than 900,000 lives across the globe. But as Ovenden shows in this wide-ranging and informative book, questions concerning the preservation and dissemination of information, the wars over who controls it, saves it, destroys it, are nothing new.

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Ovenden has been Librarian at the Bodleian in Oxford since 2014: he is the 25th holder of that title. The library was founded by Sir Thomas Bodley (his “raffish charm”, writes Ovenden, is apparent in the 16th-century portrait that hangs in the new Weston Library) following the destruction wrought by the Reformation; Bodley’s contemporary Francis Bacon described the library as “an ark to save learning from the deluge”.

The Reformation was “one of the worst periods in the history of knowledge”, Ovenden writes; hundreds of thousands of books were destroyed as the monasteries and religious orders that held them were dissolved. Bodley …read more

Source:: New Statesman


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