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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.