Somewhere along the byways of my adolescent reading I picked up the notion that the Library of Alexandria, the greatest library of antiquity™, was burnt to the ground one day in far-off times, thereby wiping out a vast trove of ancient learning and literature. I can’t remember now whether I thought that the Romans or the Christians or some other lot had done it, but I was certain it was a one-off cataclysmic event. History is rarely that simple. The real story of the Library’s liquidation is one of gradual decline, with neglect and decay punctuated by brief episodes of destruction. And in general, unless you’ve got an Alexander the Great or Genghis Khan at the gates, things — libraries, cities, civilizations — tend to fall apart gradually.
The wave of iconoclasm sweeping across the US and the UK in the last month or two has been directed mostly at statues and other monuments, but I fear it won’t be long before the mob gets round to books. While progressive academics have been calling for the ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ for quite some time, the addition of more black authors to university reading lists and the removal of a few dead white males will not appease the Baizuo vanguard and their fellow-travellers. The academy’s Overton window is way, way to the left of such pietistic progressivism now.
I don’t think the preferred method will be actual book burning, though there may be some of that. But really, literal book burning is very last century. There is more likely to be a gradual removal of ‘white-supremacist’ books from reading lists, from on-line stores, from library shelves, and then from public catalogues. Schools in the US began taking books like To Kill a Mockingbird and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn out of their libraries several years ago and this process will probably widen and accelerate. Of course, the US is not the world, but the the white-majority countries within it seem intent on adopting American identity politics. (Incidentally, I’m old enough to remember when To Kill a Mockingbird was still regarded as a key progressive text.)
Some books will be re-edited to remove ‘problematic’ language and others will be heavily footnoted, but most will simply be disappeared, moved into special collections accessible only to pre-vetted scholars, as the British Library’s Private Case erotica collection once was. And the identitarian discourse about ‘white’ science and mathematics shows that the battlefield will extend across the whole academy, not just the social sciences and humanities.
It’s easy to overreact to changes in our culture, especially now that every little controversy is magnified by social media, but this year is starting to feel like some kind of tipping point. It’s becoming apparent that state institutions, universities, and large corporations cannot be trusted to preserve the traditional libraries. It’s clear that they will cave in to the most extreme demands at the slightest pressure from the righteous warriors. It’s almost laughably simple to panic them and make them biddable. All it takes is a simple accusation of racism or sexism or elitism or transphobia, whether founded or not.
Private libraries should be safe for a while longer. But that virtual book collection stored in the Cloud you’ve become so attached to, well that’s a different matter. The thing is, you don’t own those books. You have a licence for them which can be revoked at any time. In other words, Amazon and Apple could delete that book from your reading device if they thought it necessary. And what could be more necessary than preventing ‘hate speech’?
In his Foundation series of novels, Isaac Asimov imagined the decline and fall of a Galactic Empire, and the measures taken by a group of scientists and engineers, the Foundation of the title, to preserve their civilization’s knowledge. Asimov, as a writer of so-called hard science fiction, didn’t view the arts and humanities as crucial to civilizational survival — more fool him. As I noted above, many of us are prone to overreaction in the present age and perhaps this will all blow over in a year or two. But even if it did, I fear the revolution would only have been postponed. Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about a Foundation, more catholic than Asimov’s, to preserve the best of traditional Western literature and knowledge.
For obvious reasons, this is not a project that could be undertaken by state institutions or tech giants like Google and Apple, many of whom have aligned themselves with the woke mob. So who could resource such project? It would take a billionaire maverick like Elon Musk or Peter Thiel to make it happen. Of course, a culture is more than a library, more than a collection of artefacts. It’s a way of being and acting in the world, a way of relating to that world. But such a library would be a start, a foundation, if you will.
[The picture at the top of this post is one of Érik Desmazières’ illustrations for Jorge Luis Borges’ story ‘The Library of Babel’.]