Many politicians in my acquaintance are fond of demonstrating their prowess with new technology. They and their researchers take great delight in deploying gismos and gadgetry as tools to engage the voter or ensnare the media’s interest. Websites, Twitter-feeds and subtle and not-so subtle ‘selfies’ are being churned out in such quantities that it is enough to make some of us to choose to live a hermit-like existence. When not checking mobile phones or i-pads even the most superficial of queries appear to result in the stock reply of; “I’ll google it”. Google – or rather the search engine of that name has become as revered by some in the Modern World as the likes of Al-Hikma in were in earlier times. Google – our repository of knowledge is dipped into and its ‘treasures’ deemed veritable pearls of wisdom. Equally Wikipedia and the like do our bidding and furnish us with all at the click of a mouse and yet for all this I sense that there is something missing.
Down the ages mankind has amassed magnificent repositories of knowledge, some like the Ancient Library at Alexandria have near fabled status, others even more influential have been largely forgotten. Who now speaks or writes of the library of Caliph Al-Hakam II at Cordoba? Al-Hakam amassed a collection of in excess of 400,000 books and manuscripts, for a time Europe’s finest collection of writings on history, literature, mathematics and science. Mention of books and they seem so old hat, especially in this era of the Kindle. Yet books, especially in their bulky physical form have extraordinary power, for they embody knowledge and are rich with cultural associations, something which some find intimidating or are suspicious of. Those who mistrust and fear books and what they represent seek to censor, control, and expunge. Even in 2017 books such as George Orwell’s Animal Farm or the Diary of Anne Frank are prohibited in various countries.
So fearful are some people of the power of knowledge that they have no qualms in burning great libraries. History is littered with examples of biblioclasm. Within a few years of the death of Caliph Al-Hakam his magnificent library was purged and broken up on the orders of a fanatical successor. In England King Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell caused the lost of countless priceless books during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. In Nazi Germany bigoted ideologues made night-time ceremonial for the newsreels out of burning the works of newly proscribed Jewish, Left-Wing or supposedly degenerate authors. Whilst as recently as 1981 the Jaffna Library of nearly 100,000 treasured books and manuscripts was deliberately targeted and torched by Sinhalese gangs during the Sri Lankan Civil War. Sadly, in various parts of the world such destruction and cultural barbarism continues to this day.
For all the wanton and ideologically driven destruction, there are still some signs of hope. In the Horn of Africa the campaign to establish The Somaliland National Library has elicited a remarkable response and has managed to tap into a deep seated affection for the spoken and written word. It has been heartening to see a regional proliferation in literary festivals with the Hargeisa International Book Fair now into its tenth year, and similar books fairs having been established in Mogadishu and Garowe. Here is an aspect of the Horn of Africa that the mainstream media seem largely ignorant of. Long may the bibliophiles of the Horn continue to celebrate the joy of books and reading.
New technology does afford many of us with an opportunity to access reading matter as never before. Some have made new discoveries thanks to their Kindle devices, but for all these modern wonders there is still a question mark over what is chosen to feature and that which is overlooked, ignored or deliberately left out. I am no Luddite intent on wrecking the machines of ‘progress’. I acknowledge that new mediums offer wonderful opportunities, providing one possess the skills of discernment to navigate one’s way through the dross. The Kindlesphere may appear all embracing, but for those prepared to look as well as see one can come across gaps that results in greater and lesser works being perpetually left on the shelf of history. As I peruse my bookshelves I am particularly grateful to be able to handle a well-worn, yet treasured copy of Dictatorship on its Trial – Edited by Otto Forst de Battaglia. This book was published by George Harrap & Co. Ltd. In 1930 and contains an Introduction by the Right Hon. Winston S. Churchill. One of the many reasons I consider this book so precious is because Albert Einstein was asked to contribute a chapter entitled: Science and Dictatorship, whereas all the other chapters ran to several pages Einstein contributed the following under the aforementioned heading:
“A Dictatorship means muzzles all round, and consequently stultification. Science can flourish only in an atmosphere of free speech.”
Mark T. Jones