Chris Meyns

Forthcoming

Publication: London, Quarto, forthcoming ↗

Summary: Volume investigating the history of thought about information in philosophical and scientific traditions.

Keywords: philosophy, history, empire, books, material, visual, illustrated

The Philosophers' Library: Books that Shaped the World (with Adam Ferner)

Excerpt

The book The Philosophers’ Library: Books that Shaped the World will officially be published in Autumn 2021. In the meantime, to give you a taster, here is an excerpt from the introduction:

Books are surprisingly hard to burn. The paper from which they are made is often so tightly compacted that there is insufficient oxygen for them to easily catch. This does not stop people from trying. While the book as we know it today—printed sheaves of paper, bound in covers—is a relatively recent innovation, the burning of literary works has a history as long as it is troubling.

Among the first ever recorded burnings are those in 221 BCE, ordered by the first Emperor of the Qín dynasty as a statement of his new empire’s anti-Rúist [anti-Confucian] ideology. Scrolls and scripts from around the provinces were burned by the wagonload. Then there is the razing of the Library of Alexandria by Roman forces under the direction of Julius Caesar as part of his campaign against Ptolemaic Egypt. In the twelfth century the supporters of Muhammad bin Bakhtiyār Khaljī set fire to the the library at the Indian Nalanda University, creating a blaze so fierce it supposedly took months to die out. The streets of Florence were coated with ash after the spontaneous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’ in 1497—and in 1562, Bishop Diego de Landa Calderón ordered the burning of Maya books in the city of Maní, in Yucatán, Mexico. Somewhat later, in 1814, British forces set the Library of Congress in Washington ablaze in retaliation for American attacks in Canada. And in the 1930s the National Socialist ‘Nazi’ party conducted a widespread campaign of ceremonial book burnings throughout Germany and Austria, targeting anti-fascist or socialist literature and works by Jewish authors.

Why would anyone want to burn a book? Because books are incendiary—in more senses than one. They are powerful. The printed page can contain radical ideas and as such books can be subject to censure and censorship, even to hatred. They are symbols, ciphers and carriers of explosive and challenging philosophies that other groups may seek to suppress.

More information, including about how to pre-order a copy, can be found via the website of the publisher, Quarto.