Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

I picked up a remaindered copy of this a couple of years ago on the strength of the title. My opinion on the title is mixed having read it. On the one hand it is very catchy, and does fit the courage of the librarians in question. On the other hand, it implies a different style of writing. Maybe something along the lines of Sarah Vowell’s funny prose style. In reality it’s a fairly straightforward journalistic history. So the title is the reason I bought the book, but it is also a little misleading. That said, the book is well worth reading.

The story of the librarian’s bravery is mainly confined to the final quarter of the book, and it is an exciting read. The earlier portions are perhaps slightly less exciting  but are incredibly informative. I hate to admit it, but I knew zero about the city of Timbuktu or the country of Mali before reading this. Timbuktu, was largely a metaphor for a place very far away when I was growing up. One of the strands of this book is a crash course in the history of both. I knew that Islamic and African scholarship flourished in roughly the 13th century and for some time afterwards. I didn’t know that Timbuktu was the heart of that flourishing. Another strand of the early part of the book concerned the lecturer librarian Abdel Kader Haidara and his decades long work collecting the manuscripts that demonstrate that scholarship so clearly. A third strand was the author’s journalistic account of his time spent in Mali.

One of the most fascinating things about this book is the way it illustrates that a struggle between a moderate form of Islam and the extremist version has been ongoing for centuries. The manuscripts were often hidden by families as various jihadi groups over the years had threatened them. In my experience, so many people treat Islam as a monolithic entity. This book is a very good counter to that misconception and is worth recommending on that basis alone. The most exciting part of the book comes in the last act when Al Qaeda, in conjunction with other groups, became the most recent threat to the intellectual history of the city. This is not an outlier, but the most recent flareup of a long ongoing conflict. Haidara and his colleagues smuggled hundreds of thousands of manuscripts out under the nose of the jihadis. It’s an exciting story.

Overall I both enjoyed the book and found it incredibly informative. By the ending of the book, my frustration at the title not matching the book had mostly ebbed. The final quarter of the book is indeed filled with some badassery from librarians. And it makes me want to read a more thorough history of Timbuktu.

Highly Recommended.

Owned But Previously Unread 2020 34/75

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