Sunday, June 25, 2017

Book review: "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu"

First, let's acknowledge that "The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu" is an outstanding book title. There's the unlikely combination of "Bad-Ass" and "Librarians" and then the staccato phonetics of "Timbuktu."  Love it.

In this book, author Joshua Hammer takes us to northern Mali, a part of the world probably few of us know much about. The center of the action is the city of Timbuktu, a dusty brown locale where most of the buildings are made of mud.

Hammer explains that Timbuktu has a surprisingly rich cultural history. As a trading post on the Niger River where people of various classes have crossed paths over the centuries, Timbuktu has come to be a repository of unique manuscripts.  The city holds thousands of one-of-a-kind books from centuries past, many of them painstakingly written by hand, and holding much of the area's history and culture.

Unfortunately, Timbuktu has also been overrun repeatedly by warring factions, often with religious pretexts, and through the centuries the citizens there have taken elaborate measure to hide the manuscripts to keep them safe. People buried the books or hide them behind fake walls to keep them from being destroyed by Timbuktu's latest overlords.

"The city seemed to be in a constant state of flux, periods of openness and liberalism followed by waves of intolerance and repression," Hammer writes.

Hammer describes the hard work of Abdel Kader Haidara who over decades gathered together the manuscripts of Timbuktu into a central library. Then, as extreme Islamic groups associated with Al Qaeda took over the city in 2012, Hadara and his colleagues undertook a massive operation to sneak 377,000 volumes out of the city by truck and by boat.

Before the operation was complete, the extremists found and burned 4,200 of the manuscripts. Still, the vast majority were saved.

"Timbuktu had been the incubator for the richness of Islam, and Islam in its perverted form had attempted to destroy it," Hammer writes. "But the original power of the culture itself, and the people like Haidara who had become entranced by that power, had saved the great manuscripts in the end."

Hammer ably assembles the history of Timbuktu and carefully describes the rise of extremist Islamic groups in the region, but the book is rather dry. Even in dramatic portions, with danger looming over the characters, I didn't find it particularly compelling.  Be prepared to skim ahead.

I was also disappointed that there are no pictures in the book. I found myself going online to see images to help me envision the people and places in the book.

There is another new book about this episode called "The Storied City" by Charles English. I haven't read it, so can't comment on it.


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Sunday, June 18, 2017

Whoa! -- or "Woah"? -- I just aced a grammar test

Just don't look too closely at the spelling.