Burning the Alexandrian Library, Again and Again
The year is 1906. Bernard Shaw’s comedy Caesar and Cleopatra is playing in Berlin. It is the world premier, directed by Max Reindhardt. Julius Caesar stands on the stage, a stage made to look like Egypt. A Greek scholar enters and reports to Caesar that the Alexandrian library is burning. Caesar: “I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.” The scholar says, “What is burning there is the memory of mankind.” Caesar replies, “A shameful memory. Let it burn.”
The embers of the fire at Alexandria never completely died. They continue to glow. Every later conflagration of books re-enacts in some sense this archetypal destruction. Alexandria prefigures the medieval burnings of heretical and Jewish books, as well as the modern burnings of texts condemned for their modernity, immorality, or racial or ideological errancy. The fire at Alexandria also prefigures the demise of the book in the age of digital texts.
The great burning of Antiquity was a mass destruction of signs. In western consciousness, the image of this destruction becomes itself a sign, the sign of cultural loss, cultural cleansing or cultural renewal. Authors will reinterpret it symbolically in every subsequent era, and its flames will throw a lurid, wavering light over the future, just as its legends will speak to people’s deepest fears and aspirations concerning books and their power.
Why must the Alexandrian Library burn again and again? That there were two great libraries in ancient Alexandria—the “Mother “ and “Daughter” collections—does not entirely suffice as an explanation.
In legend the Library had to be burned three times. Once was not enough. Its collection of papyruses was the largest in antiquity, a wonder of the world. There was no ancient book that could not be found there, or so tradition says. It may have contained four hundred thousand volumes. The human imagination found it hard to accept that something so large and grand could completely disappear at one go.
My subject, though, is not the history or historicity of specific burnings, but rather the mythologies of book destruction. The conference title refers to the fates of books. Fate is a mythological idea. What is the fate of a burned book?
I am strolling down a street in Boulder, Colorado. It is a rainy spring day. I’m looking for a book, so I stop in front of a shop. Rain is falling on a box of books in front of the store. I go in and tell the owner his books are getting soaked. He thanks me. Then he tells me he wants them to get wet. Why?, I ask. They are useless books that nobody wants, and so I burn them, he says, and he points to a woodburning stove radiating heat. He adds: books are not as easy to burn as you might think, but when the pages get wet they crinkle and let in air, and after they dry, they burn pretty well.
I walk out of the store. Involuntarily, my thoughts turn to the fate of the ancient papyruses that had been buried near Nag Hammadi, Egypt. In 1945, when they were unearthed, a peasant woman used some pages as fuel for baking bread in her oven. I also recall the legend of the third destruction at Alexandria. The Library’s books were distributed throughout the city to heat the four thousand public baths. And so it was that Aristotle, Sophocles, and Sappho came to serve that most ephemeral and pleasurable of human purposes, taking a hot bath.
But this was the third destruction at Alexandria. According to legend, two earlier ones preceded it. Each destruction of the Library is a palimpsest overlaying and obliterating the previous one. The succession of myths suggests that books have three lives. Phoenix-like they rise out of their own ashes, only to be burned again.
In the legend of the first destruction, the ancient library was a casualty of war. During a battle between Egyptians and the Roman forces of Julius Caesar in 47 BCE, the books accidentally caught fire. Call it collateral damage, if you will. (I think of the fate of the Iraqi National Museum in the present war, of the loss of some of the oldest known writings.) In the second legend, the Christian Emperor Theodosius incited the burning of the library in 390 CE , in order to rid the world of secular learning and pagan idolatry. For the third and most famous legend, I use the account of the eighteenth-century historian Edward Gibbon: after the Arab conquest of Alexandria in 642 CE., the Caliph Omar ordered the destruction of the famous library. When a scholar pleaded for the preservation of the books the Caliph famously replied, “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Koran, they are useless and need not be preserved; if they disagree, they are pernicious and ought to be destroyed.”
The great library had the unusual distinction of being burned in turn by Pagans, Christians, and Muslims. The destruction was thus a multicultural event. However suspect its basis in fact, the imagined record of destructions does divide the blame, and so demonstrates a measure of political correctness. Historically speaking, none of the legends is credible. Nevertheless, the inexorable fact remains that at some point in history the Library of Alexandria disappeared, and along with it hundreds of thousands of volumes, including Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, the epigrams of Posidippus of Pella, and the collected books of the Gnostics. Posidippus and the heretical books have been in part recovered, because other copies of these works had been buried. The fragile papyruses proved durable indeed. Aristotle’s treatise on comedy, however, has yet to be found. The only known copy of it in the Middle Ages was , according to Professor Umberto Eco, destroyed when the monk Jorge de Burgos set fire to the Aedificium library. The Caliph Omar of legend destroyed a vast library because one book had rendered it superfluous. Jorge de Burgos, a fictional character in Eco’s The Name of the Rose, burned a whole library in order to destroy one book, Aristotle’s treatise on comedy.
The destructive religious fervor of Theodosius and Omar came from a desire to validate one book over all others. The shadow side of zealous canonization is the demonization and destruction of books that do not follow the party line. We can see a similar pattern at work in the policies of Savonarola, Stalin, Hitler and the Ku Klux Klan. The most theatrical and widely publicized book burnings of the twentieth century took place here in Berlin, in May 1933. It is significant, considering the legendary destructions at Alexandria, that the well-organized proceedings in Germany were staged as religious rituals: when the condemned books were given over to the flames, solemn fire oaths were pronounced. Paradoxically, these burnings took place in University towns and students carried them out.
My concern in this address, however, lies not with such infamous perpetrators, but rather with modern writers and intellectuals and their attitudes to the fate of the Alexandrian library. And latterly, with the archetypal imagery of book burning today, that is, in a time when the hegemony of the book has come to an end.
The medieval bishop, Richard de Bury (c. 1345) used the language of allegory to express personal grief at the burning in Alexandria, calling it a “ hapless holocaust where ink is offered up instead of blood . . . where the devouring flames consumed so many thousands of innocents in whose mouth was no guile, where the unsparing fire turned into stinking ashes so many shrines of eternal truth.” Consider, by way of contrast, Edward Gibbon, the rationalist historian who at the end of his account of the Arab legend, in his history of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire remarked,“a philosopher may allow, with a smile” that the Alexandrian burning “was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind.” Though Gibbon had earlier in his account condemned the religious prejudices of the Christians, who supposedly sponsored the second destruction, he seems to approve the legendary Muslim destruction. Why was it a “benefit” for humanity? Because, according to Gibbon, the fire destroyed a “ponderous mass” of texts devoted to theological controversy.
We might well expect a Medieval Bishop to praise the destruction, and an Enlightenment Historian to condemn it. The reverse is the case. Surprisingly, between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries, numerous writers and literati, rather than being dismayed at the loss of so many books, celebrate the great burning. Not because of religious bigotry or moral fanaticism. Rather they reinterpret the Alexandrian destruction in the light of their own artistic and intellectual projects. They defend or approve the burning in the name of truth and creativity.
It seems paradoxical that authors of books should praise the destruction of books. Yet at times every scholar—even some here today—must despair at the terrible multitudes of books whose learning they will never assimilate. This is especially so in the age of print. One early modern writer who deplored the the rapid spread of mediocre and useless writing, invented a punishment for authors who publish such works—in hell, these authors will spend eternity eating their own books, page by page, every printed copy. It is not an entirely stupid idea. At the very least, it implies that God is a reader.
Medieval writers like de Bury and Petrarca, living as they did in a scribal culture, had great difficulty getting hold of the books they needed, and it is for this reason that they deplored the loss at Alexandria. With spread of book printing in the sixteenth century, however, literati began to see the burning as a just retribution for the excessive attachment to books, and the founder of the Alexandrian library Ptolemy Philadelphos was satirized as the type of the bibliomaniac, the foolish collector. The reason for this change was partly moralistic and partly epistemological, an expression of doubt about the value of book learning. Cervantes and Montaigne expose the pathologies of book learning in an age of increased access to books, and both playfully approve book burning, Cervantes most famously with the bonfire of Don Quixote’s library.
The typographical revolution ushered in a world of abundant printed texts, in contrast to the scarcity of texts in medieval culture. This shift was unsettling to literati. Their reactions are similar to many scholars today who, mistrusting the the rampant expansion of knowledge through the Internet, feel a loss of control and intellectual authority. Early modern intellectuals who experienced real anxieties about the monstrous proliferation of books were inclined to view the Alexandrian burning as a fortunate misfortune. The sixteenth-century French humanist Louis LeRoy (fl. 1575), for example, favors the Moderns in the culture wars between the Ancients and Moderns. Hence he praises new inventions such as printing and gunpowder. Yet he is painfully aware of the problem of too many books. There are so many, he says, that no one scholar is able to read everything in his field. He argues that if the Alexandrian library had not burned, “we would be constrained to walk, sit and lie upon books.” The nightmare vision of a world engulfed by books, anticipates Borges’s Library of Babel. Leroy also claims that the Alexandrian destruction allowed the moderns to unbind themselves from the past, so that they might create new works and make new discoveries of their own. In the next century Thomas Browne (1643) is even more troubled by the curse of print. There are so many books in the world, he argues that the burning of the Alexandrian Library should be considered as a model for present policy. He proposes a “general Synod” for the “benefit of learning” that would “condemn to the fire” the mass of books and reduce learning to “ a few and solid Authors.” A century later (in 1750), Rousseau echoes Browne, calling typography “the art of perpetuating the extravagances of the human mind.” He endorses the Alexandrian burning as a useful precedent. Finally, David Hume, though philosophically at odds with Rousseau, offers a similar program. In the final sentences of his Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) he alludes to the Alexandrian burning when he says that his philosophy must create “havoc” in libraries, for it will require that one asks the following question of any book: “does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact or existence?” If not, he says, “commit it . . . to the flames.”
The eighteenth-century rationalist, Sebastien Mercier, approaches the Alexandrian burning in ways that anticipate later writers who are preoccupied with humanity’s oppression by “the burden of the past.” His futurological Utopia, L’An deux mille quatre cent quarante (1770) describes a society where suffering and injustice have been eliminated. Mercier is one of the first to regard the Alexandrian Library as an emblem of historical memory. Its destruction is an apocalyptic sign of the end of history, and also a means to that end. In the novel, a visitor from the past is taken through the Royal Library. It is an enormous hall, but it is empty except for a small cabinet of books, all that remains of the past. The books have been burned. The Utopian guide compares the new burning to the Alexandrian one, but says that his people, unlike the “Saracens,” burned books from an “enlightened zeal.” Destroyed in the great bonfire are the complete works of Catullus, Herodotus, Sappho and Aristophanes, along with six hundred thousand works of commentary, a billion romances, and eight hundred thousand volumes of law. Mercier describes the destruction of books with relish: “The flames greedily devoured the follies of mankind, as well ancient as modern; the fire continued long.” The euphoric destructions in Mercier and other writers hint at the idea that cultural amnesia is a precondition for the return to a paradisal state beyond the “terrors of history.”
Writers who espouse fundamentally different values often agree that the Alexandrian loss is a release from the cultural burden of the past. The burning is an act of creative destruction. Nietzsche’s friend, the great historian Jakob Burckhardt exemplifies this line of thought in his lecture “Ueber Glueck und Unglueck in der Weltgeschichte” (1870). He writes, “auf das Wissen des Altertums, auf die Bibliotheken von Pergamus und Alexandrien wuerden wir am Ende noch verzichten; das neuere Wissen ist erdrueckend genug; allein die untergegangen Dichter hoechsten Ranges erfuellen uns mit Jammer, und auch an den Historikern haben wir unersetzliche Verluste erlitten, weil die Kontinuitaet der geistigen Erinnerungen auf grosse, wichtige Strecken fragmentarish geworden ist.” Yet Burckhardt sees value in the dismemberment of the past that the burning caused. He argues that, “Allein unsere unerfuellte Sehnsucht nach dem Untergegangenen ist auch etwas wert; ihr allein verdankt man es, dass noch so viele Bruchstuecke gerettet und durch eine rastlose Wissenschaft in Zusammenhang gesetzt worden sind . . . Die verehende Kraft in uns ist so wesentlich als das zu verehrende Objekt. . . . Vielleicht auch mussten jene hohen Kunstwerke untergehen, damit eine neuere Kunst unbefangen schaffen koenne. . . . wenn nach der Mitte des 18. Jahrhunderts . . .die verlorenen griechischen lyriker aufgetaucht waeren, so haetten sie moeglicherweise den ganzen hohen Flor der deutschen Poesie stoeren koennen”(194-195).
Nietzsche heard Burckhardt lecture on this subject in 1870, and found the argument so intriguing that he turned it inside out. He does this in two early works, Die Geburt der Tragoedie (1872) and“Vom Nutzen und Nachteil der Historie fuer das Leben” (1874). “Unsere ganze moderne Welt,” schreibt er, “ist im dem Netz der alexandrinischen Kultur befangen . . .” (GT sect. 18). Opposing Hume, he ridicules the modern emphasis on knowledge and science, as opposed to wisdom and action. Though he never refers directly to the burning, with deliberate anachronism he condemns the “Alexandrinische Mensch, der im Grunde Bibliothekar ist und Korrektor ist und an Buecherstaub und Druckfehlern erblindet” (GT sect.18). For Nietzsche, the Alexandrian librarian prefigures the modern historicist, the eternal epigone incapable of life, action, or creativity, who “mit Lust selbst den Staub bibliographischer Quisquilien frisst” (VN, 228). As an alternative, Nietzsche invites his readers to reject Alexandrian decadence and discover “das Unhistorische,” d.h. “die Kunst und Kraft vergessen zu koennen”(VN, 281). Historical forgetting is in fact a euphemism for the Alexandrian burning, the great symbol of collective amnesia. Bernard Shaw, an admirer of Nietzsche, later makes his theatrical Caesar mimic the voice of the youthful German philosopher, “der ueberhistorische Denker” (VN, 217-218).
In the second half of the twentieth century, there occurs a striking shift in the use of the Alexandrian burning. Intellectuals and literati seem less eager to vindicate or celebrate it. Instead, they mourn the fate of burned books.
The great fables of bookburning in the 1950’s, Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and Walter Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz suggest why this shift has occurred. These writers imagine a future in which books are considered subversive and so are systematically burned. Their popular fantasy novels dramatize not only the horrors of twentieth-century anti-intellectualism and bibliophobia. They also register latent anxieties about the rise of a post-literate culture in the 1950’s, a television-radio-movie culture inimical to reading.
The elegiac regard for the loss of books in general and of the Alexandrian library in particular extends to postmodern writing. Umberto Eco, Jorge Luis Borges, Italo Calvino, Tom Stoppard, and Christine Brooke-Rose exemplify the new direction. Pathos rather than pleasure governs their descriptions of book destruction.
Borges is a case in point. In the first essay of Other Inquisitions, “The Wall and the Books,” he ruminates on the motives of the first emperor of China who built the Great Wall and at the same time ordered the destruction of all books. Borges finds the idea that a ruler would make “the most reverent of nations” burn its past, neither justifiable nor humorous, but poignant. In another essay, “On the Cult of Books,” Borges criticizes Bernard Shaw’s Caesar as an anachronism. Borges dislikes Shaw’s turning Caesar into a leader who makes the burning of the Alexandrian library into a “sacrilegious joke.” The burning of libraries does not amuse Borges. In the concluding lines of his “Poem of the Gifts,” the blind librarian intones,“In vain the day/Squanders on these same eyes its infinite tomes,/As distant as the inaccessible volumes/Which perished in Alexandria.” “The Library of Babel,” one of his most famous parables, allegorizes the cosmos as a vast confusing library, as indecipherable as the world itself. Yet it allows Borges to define man as the “imperfect librarian.” Thus, to destroy libraries is to destroy our humanity. Elsewhere, Borges confesses he “ had always thought of Paradise/In form and image as a library.”
Among the postmoderns, the Anglo-French writer Christine Brooke-Rose creates the most original and revealing adaptation of the Alexandria myth for our time. Textermination, the portmanteau title of her novel, punningly joins together the words “text” and “termination” and “extermination.” The story is about a literary conference in San Francisco, not a normal conference, like the one we are now attending, but one in which the major participants are literary characters from the great novels of world literature. Everybody comes, including Jane Austen’s Emma and Flaubert’s Emma. (They actually meet.) The fictional personnel of world lit gather in San Francisco for the purpose of drawing attention to their plight: since the novels in which they live are rarely read anymore, their lives are endangered. After all, literary characters only come to life through an act of reading.
In chapter one, they are still on their way, most of them stuck in the airport at Atlanta. While waiting for their next flight, the characters experience a series of visions of the catastrophic fires that have played a role in fiction. From the waiting rooms, they watch Atlanta burn. They see the burning of Moscow. They see the fire where “ books by the million burn in Alexandria at Fahrenheit 451.” They see the burning of Peter Kien among the books of his library in Canetti’s Die Blendung. And they see the burning of the Aedificium library in Eco’s novel. All this burning of libraries is Brooke-Rose’s symbolic way of freeing fictional characters from the texts in which they are bound (both literally and figuratively)—now they may enter the extratextual world, our world, and proceed to San Francisco.
Behind the burning of libraries in this chapter there lies another meaning. Brooke-Rose is saying that the non-reading of books in our time is yet another burning of the Alexandrian library. The disappearance of a special kind of reading signals the end of the book. Her novel evokes the decline of the canon of great literary works, and the precariousness of book literacy in the postmodern age. Textermination.
Christine Brooke-Rose has fashioned a new symbolic meaning for the Alexandrian myth: the ancient destruction becomes an icon for the decline of print culture and its replacement by a culture of screens, a technological shift as profound and disturbing as the typographical revolution that took place five hundred years ago.
At my University in Colorado the library lends out more laptops than books, and librarians have deported thousands of books to warehouses to make room for computers. Among booklovers, such changes evoke feelings of horror. As a consequence of what we see happening before our eyes everyday, fears and hopes about cybertechnology have crystalized into a new mythos, the mythos of the end of the book.
Digital texts, pictures, and soundbites are quickly supplanting books as the knowledge and entertainment media of choice. This great transformation lies at the heart of Brooke-Rose’s novel and other postmodern fictions such as Italo Calvino’s Se in una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore . . . , with its ironic celebration of the death of the author, the instability of texts, and the end of reading.
It is now possible to foresee a time when libraries will become fully digital, when the only books left will be displayed in a small cabinet in the lobby, as in Mercier’s utopia. It is now possible to foresee a time when the book will be identified with such obsolete forms of communication as the handwritten letter, the talking drum of Africa, and the smoke signal.
What will be the ultimate fate of billions of obsolete books that nobody wants to read anymore? I have a vision of their deportation to special ranches run by McDonalds, ranches where new breeds of bibliophagic cattle turn books into hamburger.
As I was writing this essay, a front page article in The New York Times (12/14/04) announced that Google will convert to digital format the book holdings of Oxford University and three major research libraries in the U.S. The digitized books will be accessible on the Internet. It is the first step in the creation of a Universal Digital Library, that is, a library of virtual books.
This colossal undertaking is the cyber equivalent of the great Library of Alexandria. Like its ancient predecessor, the Universal Digital Library (the UDL) will be total—the repository and symbol of an entire cultural epoch. In other words, it too will become a myth. For this reason, the UDL will attract the attention of ideologues and sectarians who, for different reasons, seek to destroy what they see as the mind and nervous system of cyberculture. Some will act out an “aesthetics of destruction.” Some will be pure Luddites. Others will be opponents of global corporatism and its instruments of hegemony. Still others will be apocalyptic bibliophiles who long for the return of the golden age of the book. Groups of hackers and “hacktivists” are at work today, crafting technical means for a global cybercatastrophe. Whether in the near or distant future, one of them may succeed in launching a megavirus—call it Deconstructo if you wish—a megavirus that can erase the electronic databanks of the world. The cyberage version of the Alexandrian catastrophe.
My imagination has run wild about the fate of books. Let me turn to a less apocalyptic vision. For many, the capacity for the worship of the book will be heightened by the imminence of its loss. They will savor the bittersweet taste of anticipatory nostalgia. They will identify with the medieval scholiast who also lived in a post-literate age, who also worked to preserve an ancient tradition. Most people will see these cultists of the book as charming sectarians or fetishists, and will compare them to the Amish farmers in Pennsylvania who use horsedrawn wagons. Yet their work may be important for the future. No one really knows what the future brings. It may bring the digitization of the human body—or it may bring the complete triumph of Deconstructo!
The fate of the book is not yet sealed, and it may never be. The marvelous materiality and tangibility of books (of which the “hard copy” generated by computers is a mere shadow) continue to make them special. There is exquisite pleasure in lying down with a good book. It is less pleasurable to go to bed with a computer or laptop. Virtual books like virtual sex partners don’t seem able to do the job. Even young people say they prefer reading literature from books rather than from screens.
Another reason the book will not disappear, though reading them may, is that the printed book is the medium of choice for the longterm preservation of culture. The physical book is not easily destroyed, as the Colorado bookstore owner noted. Getting rid of billions of books is expensive, given the cost of gasoline or the cost of raising fancy breeds of book-eating cattle. The great advantage of printed books is that there are so many of them dispersed over the globe. Call it the diaspora of books. Books may be found anywhere, not only in stores and libraries, but also in attics, packing cases, coffins, time capsules, and nuclear missile silos. Yes, missile silos—my university stores thousands of books in a disused missile silo. In short, it is hard to make all the copies of a printed book disappear. Authors who try to suppress their earlier works know this well.
The virtues of the Internet—total storage, instant searchability, and global dissemination—depend on the interconnectivity of cyberspace. For longterm preservation of texts, this is a fatal flaw. Because everything is electronically connected all sites and data become vulnerable to viruses. Books, being discrete things, are not subject to this kind of destruction. Another serious problem with cybertexts is that the hardware that makes them readable becomes obsolete. There will come a time when the technology needed to read many historic digital texts will be beyond repair. This will never happen to real books.
Ancient manuscripts, including forbidden ones, have proven remarkably durable. In 367 CE, the Bishop of Alexandria ordered Egyptians to burn all religious writings that were not canonical. Around this time somebody buried a small library of heretical books in a hillside in upper Egypt . Whoever buried them (probably monks) did so in order to preserve them from destruction. In 1945, these books were unearthed by an Egyptian villager. These were the papyruses mentioned above, some of which were burned in an oven. In the end, though, most were saved and published. Today, the Nag Hammadi texts are held in libraries around the world.
My first stop on this journey was not Berlin, but Amsterdam. There I learned about a Dutch cabinet maker who builds a book cabinet that can be converted into a coffin. If you are a bibliophile, you can be buried with your favorite books, even your own. There is hope they may turn up again in the remote future. As did the poems of Posidippus of Pella. He was a writer in the third century BCE. Later, when the library of Alexandria disappeared so did the papyruses that held his works; only a few of his poems survived. Then in the 1990’s a hundred of his epigrams were rediscovered when an Egyptian mummy was exhumed. Ancient embalmers had used the papyrus of a poetry scroll as packing material for the mummy. The scroll contained an anthology of Posidippus’s poems. Recovered and published in book form, they are now available to readers. I find it moving that some of Posidippus’s epigrams praise his contemporary, Ptolemy Philadelphos, founder of the great Library of Alexandria.
A Bibliographic Addendum
For detailed bibliographic citations of the primary sources used in this essay, as well as for more extensive discussion of the symbolic uses of library burning, I refer the reader to the following: Jon Thiem, “The Great Library of Alexandria Burnt: Towards the History of a Symbol,” The Journal of the History of Ideas (Oct.-Dec. 1979), 507-526; Thiem, “Humanism and Bibliomania: King Ptolemy and His Library in Renaissance Literature,” Res Publica Litterarum (1982), 227-246; and Thiem, “Myths of the Universal Library from Alexandria to the Postmodern Age” in Cyberspace Textuality, ed. M.-L. Ryan, (Bloomington, 1999). Two other important discussions are Isaac D’Israeli, “Destruction of Books,” Curiosities of Literature (New York and London, 1868), vol. I, and Mona Koerte, “ ‘Pyrotechniker der Macht’”: Buecherverbrennungen und ihre Wirkung in der Literatur,” Zeitschrift fuer Geschichtswissenschaft (2003), 420-438. For the history and uses of the Alexandrian Libraries, see P.M. Fraser, Ptolemaic Alexandria (Oxford, 1972), and Luigi Canfora’s more speculative account, The Vanished Library (Berkeley, 1987). A brief, incisive discussion of the nature and size of the Library, along with a critique of the reliability of the sources used in various traditional views of the collection, is to be found in Uwe Jochum, “The Alexandrian Library and Its Aftermath,” Library History (May 1999), 5-12.
For the story of the peasant woman using the Nag Hammadi papyri as fuel, see John Dart, The Jesus of Heresy and History (San Francisco, 1988), 45.
For Richard de Bury, I quote the translation by E.C. Thomas from his edition of Philobiblon (Oxford, 1970), 72-75,
For Montaigne’s receptive attitude to the burning of libraries, see the last pages of his essay “Du Pedantisme.”
The quotations from Burckhardt are out of his Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen ed. W. Kaegi (Muenchen, 1978), and those from Nietzsche, from Werke in drei Baenden, ed. K. Schlechta (Muenchen 1954), vol. 1.
Tom Stoppard in his play Arcadia (London, 1993), Act 1, scene 3, mimes and makes fun of nineteenth-century attitudes (and the complacent indifference to the Alexandrian destruction) through the character of the Byronic intellectual Septimus. When his pupil Thomasina laments the loss of the great library (“How can we sleep for grief?”), Septimus replies we should be grateful for what we have: “you should no more grieve for the rest than . . . for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old . . . we shed as we pick up . . . .” He argues that what is lost will always return, history repeats itself. Ironically, Thomasina herself perishes in a fire, an irrecoverable loss, but her work is later recovered.
Christine Brooke-Rose, Textermination (Manchester, 1991). For the idea that the burnings of the libraries release the literary characters from their texts, see Sarah Birch, Christine Brooke-Rose and Contemporary Fiction (Oxford, 1994), 136.
For the thinking behind the “aesthetics of destruction” and, generally, the efforts of hackers and hacktivists, see Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information (Chicago, 2004), the introd. and chap. 11. For a satirical approach to the mythologization of the coming Universal Digital Library, see Thiem, “Myths of the Universal Library” (cited above). The Electronic Literature Organization (www.eliterature.com) has devoted itself to the problem of the loss of historic digital texts through the obsolescence of technologies. Thanks to Marie-Laure Ryan for these references.
On the order to destroy non-canonical books in 367 CE, see Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief: The Secret Gospel of Thomas (New York, 2003), 97.
For an ironic view of the survival of Posidippus’s epigrams, see the epigram by Thiem, “Epilogue: To Posidippus” in Doebler et al, Nine Waves (Sutter House, 2003), 175.
A German translation of the above text, by Dr. Mona Koerte, was published under the title “Die Bibliothek von Alexandria brennt—wieder und wieder” in Verbergen. Ueberschreiben. Zerreissen: Formen der Buecherzerstoerung in Literatur, Kunst und Religion. Hg. Koerte und Ortlieb. Berlin: Erich Schmidt Verlag. 31-45.