I have lived in the midwestern United States for all of my life. Much of my physical travel has not included areas outside the borders of it, either. However, books have always provided me a glimpse of other nations and cultures—ways of life that have expanded my esoteric understanding of the world.
This limitation of my own reality is one of the reasons I get pretty bent out of shape when the topic censorship is raised. My personal belief system centers around free thought, even when—especially when—one’s ideas differ from my own. I want to know other views! How boring is life if everyone agrees all of the time?! Also, a limitation on free thought manifests into a ban on freedom of speech, which eventually includes a ban of public protest and journalism in addition to fiction and non fiction writing. Inevitably, censorship sets off a thunderous dynamo effect in my mind that schematically ends somewhere near book burning.
The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell seeks to explore the nature of how this existential and literal ban on the word came to be during the 1930s, including the Nazi looting of Europe’s libraries. “The theft of their culture was,” Rydell notes, “a way of robbing [the people] of their history, their humanity, and, in the final analysis, any possibility of remembrance.” This book is imperative not only in content but also in hope: let the world not forget from whence we came so we for certain do not return.
For more on “The Book Thieves,” set to be published by Penguin Group (Viking) in February 2017, continue.
The first chapter begins with a look at Berlin, specifically the genesis of book burning. The books “were stolen not for honor and not only out of greed either—but rather for…the most important ideologues of the Third Reich… the targets of this plunder were the ideological enemies of the movement—Jews, Communists, Freemasons, Catholics…” (Foreward). Readers are asked to remember, right away, that the theft of books was not just physical property theft but also ideas; oppositional ideologies were purloined to quell uprising.
Robbing people of words and narrative is a way of imprisoning them.
As the book continues, several locales in Europe are addressed, including: Weimar, Munich, Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, and Prague, among others. There is a section or chapter for every book lover, historically (or bookishly!) inclined or otherwise. Without knowledge of what has happened to the world’s books–readers’ loves–then what will keep everyone from noticing perilous admonitions in the future? As the Edmund Burke (Santayana too) adage says, “Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it.”
As an educator, I highly recommend this book for secondary history courses or upper elective or required literature courses. The chapters are approachable, a mix of present-day research and citations of historical statistics. The current text sits at approximately 300 pages, which is very doable for a high school classroom or a general ed. required college course. Approximately 7% of the book is notes or citations for where the historical statistics and references can be found, which could provide an interesting research query project all on its own.
Overall I found the book to be an interesting and well rounded review of one of the worst atrocities to the written word from the 21st century. I feel it is an imperative educational apex, and I hope that educators (and all citizens with respect for the written word) review this book for what it is: a catalog, a counsel, and a caution.
Where books are burned, in the end people will be burned too. -Heinrich Heine, 1820
I received an advanced copy of this text via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.