Thursday, September 27, 2007

Book burning: a timely topic

As I mentioned yesterday, Danish physician Thomas Bartholin was not only a prolific writer but also a librarian, keeper of both a university collection and a private collection. In 1670, he suffered one of the greatest blows known to any librarian: the complete destruction of his personal library by fire.

In his essay, On the burning of his library, Thomas recounts the horrible events surrounding the loss. He begins with the lamentation: "It was disastrous to be so respectful." For it was during his absence from home, during a trip to the funeral of his revered teacher Poul Moth, that the conflagration occurred. Declaring that "while such unforeseen disasters have tried my spirit they did not prevail," Thomas nevertheless pours out his grief to his sons in this 42-page "dissertation."

No small amount of personal blame comes through in these pages:
I offered nourishment to the raging fire by consecrating my papers to eternity and testing their behavior in the purifying flame. Once risen to the sun they were examined for legitimacy. The foetuses of my talents and labor were also examined by the fire and found neither vital nor legitimate; because of their immaturity they were further matured by fire.
His epitaph for the departed:
You learned ashes, the greatest hope for my reputation, but as an immense and grievous ruin scarcely suitable as the conclusion of my labors, would that the pious care of my hand might move you.... You were announced before your birth and before you could be brought forth with the applause that all ages might have given to your birth. You have moved to immortality by this step, because you have come before the public without the affront of type and to fame without worms.
He finishes with an annotated list of the works which were lost, including a work on pagan anatomy, a popular medical tract aimed at Danish householders, an expanded edition of De unicornu, his treatise on shark teeth, commentaries on Celsus and Hippocrates, and many other studies.

The burning of the library provides Thomas with an occasion to reflect on historical book burnings, whether through accident or design. With the start of Banned Books Week just two days away, his comments seem fitting:
Here and there famous manuscripts have perished through pernicious zeal against libraries, or rather through hatred of their possessors .... Those have greater reason for the deed who sentence books to the pyre not through ill-will against the authors but through dislike of the subject, either impious or opposed to the decrees of princes.... The Roman senate, through Q. Petilius the praetor of the city, and in an assembly of the people, burned the Greek books of Numa which seemed in some degree to oppose the religion. In the judgment of Lactantius, De Falsa Religione, bk. 1, ch. 22, it was meaningless, for of what advantage was it that the books were burned since that for which they were burned, the fact that they denied the religion, had been handed on to memory. Everyone then in the senate was very stupid, for although the books could be destroyed yet the matter of them was recalled.
In honor of Banned Books Week and in memoriam for Thomas' loss, check out the list of books challenged in Oregon in 2007--and then literally check them out, at your local library. Because they may take our books, but they will never take our freedom.

1 comment:

peacay said...

That there is some astonishing prose following the loss. What a singularly 'interesting' way to process his grief. Thanks for this.