Boyd Tonkin: Timbuktu is a cultural tragedy – but if e-books burn, no one will see the flames

The Week in Books

We often miss the point about Timbuktu. In Europe, the crossroads of the Malian empire became a byword for remoteness and exoticism not because people imagined it as a mythical place but because they knew that it really did exist.

At the terminus of the trans-Saharan trading routes that merchants from the north might use, or at least dispatch their local agents down, the cosmopolitan city came to embody a splendour that lay, for Europeans, tantalisingly out of reach. Its wealth resided not just in gold and salt, but in learning too. In the 1320s - also a key decade for college-foundation in Oxford and Cambridge - the great Malian ruler Mansa Musa I converted the madrassa of Sankore into a fully-fledged university, soon to be a hub for scholars from across the Islamic world.

Thanks to Sankore and similar institutions, Timbuktu accumulated its famous store of precious manuscripts. They covered the entire range of arts and sciences known to the late-medieval world. Estimates of their total number rise to around 700,000.

We don't know how many survived until January 2013, or precisely how many were lost when, earlier this week, the retreating Islamist rebels of Ansar Dine put to the torch both the Ahmad Baba Institute and a separate warehouse when they fled Timbuktu. (Ahmad Baba, or "Ahmad the Black", was a contemporary of Shakespeare - 1556-1627 - who wrote more than 40 works.) Providentially, several thousand items due for relocation to the new library were being kept in the Malian capital, Bamako. Whatever the figures, the destruction of the Timbuktu manuscripts takes its place in the melancholy roll-call of symbolic book-burnings. In the name of faith, a treasure-trove of African culture has gone up in smoke.

"Where they burn books, they end up burning people too." More of us can quote that line from Heinrich Heine than know its origin. In his 1821 tragedy Almansor, it refers to the incineration of the Qur'an by the Spanish Inquisition. Heine's works duly joined the bonfire themselves when the Nazis burned Jewish and "decadent" literature on the Opernplatz in Berlin in May 1933. Hitler's conflagrations - books first, then people - adhered to Heine's timetable. So did the Serbian artillery units whose shells gutted the National Library and Oriental Institute in Sarajevo. They annihilated both vast stocks of books and unique caches of Jewish and Islamic manuscripts in 1992, a little before the day-by-day slaughter of civilians over three years of siege had properly begun.

The best we can say about this modern chronicle of incineration - of the Jaffna library in Sri Lanka in 1981; the National Library of Iraq in Baghdad in 2003; the Institute of Egypt library in Cairo in 2011 - is that dismal familiarity makes the ritual fairly easy to grasp. We can see why and how purists of an ethnic or sectarian stamp seek to send the written record of dangerous thoughts up in smoke. In its 20th-century totalitarian guise, the syndrome even gave rise to a classic work of fiction: the late Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. Sadly, this week's fires in Timbuktu will not mark its final chapter.

However, it's not only zealots and fanatics in thrall to some antique creed who will yearn to burn books and quash ideas. No one has yet thought through the long-term implications for liberty and learning of the shift towards digital publishing, with a few outsize corporations effectively poised to become the monopoly librarians and booksellers for much of the online world. Why should we trust in their permanent commitment to the principles of freedom, openness and plurality? Given a boardroom coup in a quoted company, the censors could take charge at any time. If they do, and when e-books "burn", no one will even hear the crackle, smell the smoke or see the flames.

Let's have more level literary playing-fields

As Hilary Mantel clinched her Booker-Costa double on Tuesday, the Costa Awards also struck a rare blow for meritocracy in the book-prize business. The inaugural Costa Short Story Award was won by Avril Joy with Chioma Okereke and Guy Le Jeune as runners-up (above, the shortlisted authors). The contest is judged entirely anonymously. No names are attached to the stories picked by a panel and then voted for by readers online. It makes for a true equality of opportunity that should give other awards food for thought.

Blinkered views of an open race

Even the website of the Man Booker International Prize bangs on about the "surprising" selection of 10 finalists - each chosen for career-long achievement - just announced for the biennial award. Well, it all depends on the breadth of your horizons. Israel's Aharon Appelfeld, one candidate for the award (to be unveiled on 22 May), won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize last year for Blooms of Darkness.

And, although the Independent prize doesn't have an official runner-up, we chose in 2012 to make a special commendation of Chinese novelist Yan Lianke for Dream of Ding Village. He's another MBI finalist. It's also good to see Pakistan's Intizar Husain and, from India, UR Ananthamurthy listed, as well as US short-story queen Lydia Davis. Some pundits now treat Marilynne Robinson as a front-runner - but maybe, for the more myopic, that's because she's the only one they know.

Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

    Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

    But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

    Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
    Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

    Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

    Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
    Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

    Britain's 24-hour culture

    With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
    Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

    The addictive nature of Diplomacy

    Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
    Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

    Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

    Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
    8 best children's clocks

    Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

    Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
    Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

    After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones