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Burning Libraries

In Tom Stoppard's contemporary play, Arcadia, the budding genius Thomasina laments to her tutor about the burning of the ancient Library of Alexandria, "Oh, Septimus!—can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides—thousands of poems—Aristotle's own library!...How can we sleep for grief?"

So who burned the Library of Alexandria? War did three times, inadvertently. Religious bigotry did twice, on purpose. We are right to grieve. Only one in ten of the major Greek classics survived. Nothing like Alexandria's library was seen again for a thousand years.

A different reason for burning books was originally invented by China's first great emperor, Shih Huang-ti, in the third century b.c.e.

In 213 b.c.e at an imperial banquet, a Confucian scholar offered criticism of such a severe break with the past. "Nothing can endure for long," he said, "but that which is modeled on antiquity." The emperor's grand councilor Li Ssu responded, "There are some men of letters who do not model themselves on the present, but study the past in order to criticize the present age. They confuse and excite the ordinary people. If such conditions are not prohibited, the imperial power will decline above and partisanship will form below." The order went out to burn all books in the empire except only those dealing with agriculture, medicine, and fortune telling. To even discuss the forbidden works was punishable by death. The pathetically few early classics to survive the conflagration had to be later rewritten from memory.

The same impulse inspired Hitler's book-burning ceremonies of May 1933. "The German form of life is definitely determined for the next thousand years," he declared. The new propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, told the students at the bonfires, "These flames not only illuminate the final end of an old era, they also light up the new."

The danger continues. Cultural arson was unleashed again in August 1992, in Bosnia. For three days Serb forces targeted Sarajevo 's multi-cultural National and University Library with a bombardment of incendiary grenades. Bosnia's written heritage was consumed—a million and a half volumes, one hundred fifty-five thousand of them rare books and manuscripts. The library's director said that the Bosnian Serbs "knew that if they wanted to destroy this multiethnic society, they would have to destroy the library." In horror at the event, librarians worldwide have established an Internet-based Bosnian Manuscript Ingathering Project [] to track down duplicates and replace as many as possible of the lost documents.

Starting anew with a clean slate has been one of the most harmful ideas in history. It treats previous knowledge as an impediment and imagines that only present knowledge deployed in theoretical purity can make real the wondrous new vision. Thus the French Revolution of 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Communist Revolution of 1949 each made brave new worlds that catastrophically failed. By cutting off continuity with the slower parts of their cultures they had no fallback. The American Revolution of 1776, by contrast, was highly conservative. Its instigators studied Roman, Venetian, and even Iroquois history for precedents. There was little of the brutal rhetoric of making a total break with the past. As a result, all the leaders who started the revolution lived to see it through to completion, and its innovations in governance aged relatively well. The Americans severed the political bonds with the Old World but not the cultural bonds. They burned their bridges, not their libraries.

Burning libraries is a profound form of murder, or if self-inflicted, suicide. It does to cultural continuity—and hence safety—what destroying species and habitats does to nature's continuity, and hence safety. Burning the Amazon rain forest burns the world's richest library of species. The accumulated past is life's best resource for innovation . Revolutions cut off the past. Evolution shamelessly, lazily repurposes the past. Reinventing beats inventing nearly every time.