Review: “The Library: A Fragile History” – Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen

How did public libraries start? What happened to the Library of Alexandria? How did Gutenberg’s press influence libraries and book-collecting? What role did libraries and librarians play in significant conflicts such as WWII? When and why did fiction become so widespread? How did Martin Luther and the Reformation forever change the nature of books?

Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen examine these and many other questions in “The Library: A Fragile History.” Let me be clear: this is not a book about bibliophiles, the wonder of the written word, and the beauty of reading. On the contrary, this is a serious scholarly work of history involving war, genocide, racism, colonialism and imperialism, sexism, slavery, war crimes, political economy, plunder, and more. Perhaps aware of how easy it is to forget about the role played by books, libraries, and librarians during significant socio-economic, political, and religious upheavals, Pettegree and der Weduwen remind readers that whatever the time and whatever the conflict, books, libraries, and librarians were involved.

Books were an invaluable weapon in Martin Luther’s arsenal against the omnipotent power of the Catholic Church. By writing small, quickly produced pamphlets in the vernacular language instead of Latin, Luther was able to rapidly spread his message across Germany, forever changing the German language and the politicization of books.

During the Thirty Years’ war, Swedish armies systematically plunder tens of thousands of manuscripts and books from continental libraries, including German, Polish, and Czech, creating one of Europe’s most extensive and finest libraries in Uppsala. Among the most famous manuscripts looted by Swedish armies is the 6th-century Codex Argenteus. The Codex was a part of the library of Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II at his imperial seat in Prague until Swedish armies conquered Prague in 1648.

During WWII, virtually all Polish books and libraries were destroyed or looted, and 20 million books in France, 60 million books in Britain, and 100 million books in Russia were destroyed. Nazi libraries and librarians confiscated the personal libraries of Jews and employed forced labour to sort and catalogue the collections.

Of particular interest to me in this book was the centuries-long debate between fiction vs. nonfiction. I have never understood the appeal of fiction. The real world is sufficiently fascinating enough without the need for fantasy. Moreover, if I am going to invest time in reading a book, I might as well be improving myself and expanding on my knowledge while I am reading it. My preference for nonfiction is the main reason I have built my own personal library of 1,400+ nonfiction books and don’t utilize public libraries. Most public libraries are overflowing with what Sir Thomas Bodley denounced as “idle books” and “riff raffes” in the 16th- century — fantasy, crime novels, etc. The kind and quality of nonfiction books I enjoy are usually found not on library shelves but outside the library, in the dumpster, to make space for brain-rotting “Penny Dreadfuls.” This has left me no other option than to buy all the books I read.

Conclusion: this was a fascinating book about the history of libraries and book-collecting, and I would recommend it to anyone interested in either subject.

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