Book review: Richard Ovenden’s ‘Burning the Books’ has relevance

By Julia Purdy

Book-burning is always an interesting subject to anyone with any curiosity about history. Hints have filtered down to us about book-burning under Germany’s Third Reich and the destruction of the ancient library at  Alexandria, Egypt. Sometimes pop culture deals with the topic, as in Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, “Fahrenheit 451,” which posits a future society that burns books as a public policy. Real life provided the fodder: Nazi style “cancel culture” and Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against domestic Communists real or imagined alarmed Bradbury, who could so easily foresee the destruction of imagination and independent thought and of democracy itself.

Richard Ovenden’s book, “Burning the Books: A History of the Deliberate Destruction of Knowledge,” is one of an array of intriguing titles about libraries and librarians, on display at the Rutland Free Library. As head of one of the more exalted libraries in the world, Ovenden is no fuddy-duddy. On the contrary, his style is personable, his approach is modern, and he offers many interesting facts and observations—beginning with the human drive, hardwired it seems, to create a permanent record of experience, from the cave paintings and “scratches of symbols on stones,” forward.

Libraries may take different forms, but any threat, whether physical or through censorship, threatens cultural identity: in the modern age, book-burning – or at least restricting access to the printed word as well as images – is a form of cancel culture, intended to erase history itself.

Interestingly, in view of Vermont’s recent go-round with the trustees of Vermont State University as they were set to eliminate printed matter from the college libraries, Ovenden has this to say about the issue (although he could not have known about Vermont’s particular case when writing):

“Digital information is inherently less stable and requires a much more proactive approach, not just to the technology itself (such as file formats, operating systems and software). These challenges have been amplified by the widespread adoption of online services provided by major technology companies, especially those in the world of social media, for whom preservation of knowledge is a purely commercial consideration.

“As more and more of the world’s memory is placed online we are effectively outsourcing that memory to the major technological companies that now control the internet.”

The risk of abuse by bad actors leads many users to insist on privacy through VPN, two-factor identification, blocking and super-secure search engines, all of which put a chokehold on content depending on the user’s preferences.

The internet’s Achilles heel is that “digital information is surprisingly vulnerable to both neglect as well as deliberate destruction. … Having it destroyed may be a desirable short-term outcome for many people worried about invasions of privacy but this might ultimately be to the detriment of society.”

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