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Burning the Books

A History of Knowledge Under Attack

Richard Ovenden



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John Murray
08 September 2020
History; General & world history; History: earliest times to present day
Opening with the notorious bonfires of 'un-German' and Jewish literature in 1933 that offered such a clear signal of Nazi intentions, BURNING THE BOOKS takes us on a 3000-year journey through the destruction of knowledge and the fight against all the odds to preserve it. Richard Ovenden, director of the world-famous Bodleian Library, explains how attacks on libraries and archives have been a feature of history since ancient times but have increased in frequency and intensity during the modern era. Libraries are far more than stores of literature, through preserving the legal documents such as Magna Carta and records of citizenship, they also support the rule of law and the rights of citizens. Today, the knowledge they hold on behalf of society is under attack as never before. In this fascinating book, he explores everything from what really happened to the Great Library of Alexandria to the Windrush papers, from Donald Trump's deleting embarrassing tweets to John Murray's burning of Byron's memoirs in the name of censorship. At once a powerful history of civilisation and a manifesto for the vital importance of physical libraries in our increasingly digital age, BURNING THE BOOKS is also a very human story animated by an unlikely cast of adventurers, self-taught archaeologists, poets, freedom-fighters -- and, of course, librarians and the heroic lengths they will go to preserve and rescue knowledge, ensuring that civilisation survives. From the rediscovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in the desert, hidden from the Romans and lost for almost 2000 years to the medieval manuscript that inspired William Morris, the knowledge of the past still has so many valuable lessons to teach us and we ignore it at our peril.
By:   Richard Ovenden
Imprint:   John Murray
Country of Publication:   United Kingdom
Dimensions:   Height: 232mm,  Width: 152mm,  Spine: 28mm
Weight:   380g
ISBN:   9781529378764
ISBN 10:   1529378761
Pages:   320
Publication Date:   08 September 2020
Audience:   General/trade ,  ELT Advanced
Format:   Paperback
Publisher's Status:   Active

Richard Ovenden is the Bodley's Librarian. Since 1987 he has worked in a number of important archives and libraries, including the House of Lords Library, the National Library of Scotland (as a Curator of Rare Books) and in the University of Edinburgh, where he was Director of Collections. Ovenden was elected to Fellowships of the Society of Antiquaries and the Royal Society of Arts, and a Foreign Member of the American Philosophical Society. He is an Honorary Fellow of St Hugh's College, Oxford and holds a Professorial Fellowship at Balliol College, Oxford. His writing has been frequently published in major newspapers and online platforms. Burning the Books is his first book.

Reviews for Burning the Books: A History of Knowledge Under Attack

Fascinating and rewarding . . . Ovenden's finest achievement in Burning the Books is to demonstrate the importance and enduring power of preserved knowledge . . . [his] professional expertise and personal passion are evident on every page -- Timothy W Ryback * Literary Review * This book should stir us to thinking and to action - against censorship, against careless loss, and for the preservation of the memory of where we came from and of our right to be where we are -- Michael Skapinker * Financial Times * Ovenden moves effortlessly through the centuries and around the world . . . it is hard not to see him and his fellow librarians as warriors and freedom fighters, the unsung heroes of the high streets -- Frances Wilson * Standpoint * A galvanising manifesto for the importance of physical libraries in our increasingly digital age * The Bookseller * As director of the Bodleian Library Ovenden is well-placed to deliver this devastating take on the erosion of knowledge and the importance of libraries as a physical space -- 75 of the best books for autumn * Independent * Like an epic film-maker, Richard Ovenden unfolds vivid scenes from three millennia of turbulent history, to mount passionate arguments for the need to preserve the records of the past - and of the present. This urgent, lucid book calls out to us all to recognise and defend one of our most precious public goods - libraries and archives. -- MARINA WARNER A magnificent book - timely, vital and full of the most incredible tales, a manifesto for our humanity and its archives -- PHILIPPE SANDS A stark and important warning about the value of knowledge and the dangers that come from the destruction of books. Vital reading for this day and age. -- PETER FRANKOPAN BURNING THE BOOKS is fascinating, thought-provoking and very timely. No one should keep quiet about this library history. -- IAN HISLOP Both timely and authoritative...The subject of archives and libraries is one of permanent importance in the understanding a nation has of itself, and touches not only high politics but also life-and-death drama. I can think of no-one better qualified to write about it than Richard Ovenden. I enjoyed Burning the Books immensely. -- PHILIP PULLMAN Intriguing...Unforgettable -- Christopher Hart * SUNDAY TIMES * If there's anyone you might want to read your love letters after your death, it's Richard Ovenden; as Burning the Books reveals on every page, not only is he careful, diligent and wise, he also knows what to leave out and what to keep in and it's this quality that, above all, makes his book so remarkable. Francis Bacon described the creation of the Bodleian in the 1590s as 'an ark to save learning from the deluge' -- the deluge in question being the Reformation. Ovenden's ark, also written at a time of huge political and economic strife, attempts to save the concept of the library itself...something it achieves not through polemic but by telling stories. Rich, meticulous and impressive... Its sweep is quite astonishing. -- Rachel Cooke * OBSERVER * 'Dangerous souvenirs' is what Richard Ovenden calls the books salvaged by ex-monks under the nose of Henry VIII. Now as then, books need friends. This fascinating book will help to find them. -- ALAN BENNETT Passionate and illuminating... this splendid book reveals how, in today's world of fake news and alternative facts, libraries stand defiant as guardians of truth. -- Gerard deGroot * THE TIMES *

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