Books About Books in Troubled Times

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Books About Books in Troubled Times

While finding time to read can feel like a luxury, books have often been vital and necessary for surviving and sustaining through difficult times. Many people have also found many books and collections important enough to risk their own lives in order to protect them. The following books dive into the role books, manuscripts and libraries have played in times of war, crisis and change.  

Badass Librarians from Timbuktu and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer
Political instability in Mali in the early 2010s prompts local librarian Abdel Kader Haidara to sneak centuries old texts out of the country to protect them from destruction. This book traces the life story of Haidara and how he came to care for such a treasured collection of manuscripts, as well as the rich scholarly literary cultures of medieval polities in West Africa that generated them. In a time of great risk of danger, Haidara’s courage and plans helped keep invaluable historical documents safe for the future.  
(See digital format here).

When Books Went to War: The Stories that Helped Us Win World War II by Molly Manning 
Along with all sorts of survival gear, paperback books became as essential as arms for American soldiers in World War II. When Books Went to War traces the fascinating history of how American librarians, the military and politicians came together to print and donate books en masse in the leadup and during war in kind with other military production and prioritized ahead of many basic items. Accessibility of books was not only a source of comfort, escape and healing in troubled times at home and in the war theatre, but also represented an ideological flashpoint between fascist censorship and democratic openness. This book demonstrates how books not only sustained soldiers and veterans and explores the popular titles of the era, but helped concretize the ideological rationale for entering an unpopular war. 
(See digital format here).

Sacred Trash: The Lost and Found World of the Cairo Genizah by Adina Hoffman and Peter Schechter 
At the turn of the twentieth century, a discovery of a large genizah, a repository for discarded Hebrew text that can’t respectfully be destroyed, in a Cairo synagogue provided the world a historical archive spanning centuries. Sacred Trash details the history of the genizah itself, and its manuscripts enriched understanding of medieval and early modern life around the Mediterranean Sea. While not technically books, the fragments and partial texts that filled the genizah survived all sorts, and reminds of the value even detritus. 
(See digital format here).

Syria’s Secret Library: Reading and Redemption in a Town Under Siege by Mike Thomson 
During heaving during the Syrian Civil War, residents of the town of Darayya built an underground library. This book details what life was like for people who remained in an evacuated and shelled town, focusing not on political context of the war, but what they risked to build community respite in spite of it. Get to know the denizens who recognized books as a necessity even amidst the instability and violence and war.  

The Catalogue of Shipwrecked Books by Edward Wilson-Lee 
Christopher Columbus’s illegitimate son Hernando Colon set out on his own ambitious task of collecting and cataloguing all sorts of writing, art and music circulating in a burgeoning print culture, eventually curating one of the largest personal libraries in the early modern world. This biography tells of the history of Colon’s acquisitions and travels, from shipwrecks in the Caribbean, Venice book marts, and with influential European political leaders from the Vatican to London. As concepts of the world shifted during--geographically, artistically, and theologically-- Colon’s growing library catalogued these changes and remains an incredible resource in studying the tumultuous era.  
(See highlights of Fernando Colon’s collection here).