People of the Book, by Gwendolyn Brooks

And now back to our regularly scheduled blogging…

1379961This weekend, I finished reading Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. This book follows the history (sort of) of the Sarajevo Haggadah. Basically, Brooks created a history for the book based on what was known and what she invented for the purposes of plot. The story is narrated, for the most part, by a fictional book conservator, who is called in to assess and conserve the Haggadah after it was removed from a bank vault where it had been kept since the Bosnian wars of the early 1990s. The conservator, Hanna, examines the book and finds a few trace elements of where the book has been since its creation: a butterfly wing, a white hair, wine and salt water stains. Hanna’s narrative is interrupted with chapters that show a part of the imagined history of the book, through World War II, fin de siècle Vienna, seventeenth century Venice, and fifteenth century Spain and North Africa.

Throughout this book, the Haggadah is threatened with destruction. What really moved me about this book, though, is the lengths that people–especially librarians–went to to save the book. Twice, in the twentieth century, Muslim librarians hid the Haggadah to save it. One of the characters summarized the book the best:

Well, from what you’ve told me, the book has survived the same human disaster over and over again. Think about it. You’ve got a society where people tolerate difference, like Spain in the Convivencia, and everything’s humming along: creative, prosperous. Then somehow this fear, this hate, this need to demonize ‘the other’–it just sort of rears up and smashes the whole society. Inquisition, Nazis, extremist Serb nationalists…same old, same old. (195)

The real history of the Haggadah may not be as remarkable as the one that Brooks invented. During the Serbian/Bosnian wars, museums and libraries were targeted, because the combatants didn’t just want to destroy their enemies, but also their enemies’ cultural heritage. Tragic. But I am proud to be a librarian, because of the heroism of the librarians in this book and in the Haggadah’s actual history. I work with books and texts all the time, but what if something happened to the library? What would I try to save of our books?

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