Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Living Book

Last night I stumbled on to a BBC Four programme called 'The Love of Books—A Sarajevo Story'. It had already begun: the presenter was holding an illuminated manuscript in Arabic, equal, though utterly different, to any medieval manuscript the West has produced. The programme told the story of how more than 10,000 ancient and unique manuscripts were saved during the siege of Sarajevo by librarians who braved shelling and sniper fire to move them from hiding place to hiding place, who would rather die than live without the precious manuscripts they loved, and of which they were guardians.

By chance I had been talking that morning with some visitors to Oxford who shared my table at the café in Blackwells. I suggested they go to see the current exhibit of manuscripts at the Bodelian, describing with an awe that only grows with the passage of time of the processes by which they were created, each letter hand written on vellum; each gold ornament, some of them miniscule, made from leaf as thin as tissue, blown into place by someone's breath of life, then buffed; the painstaking process of making vellum itself; all that is the best of what is human poured out between covers.

The leading scholar on the programme said that he thought of a book as a person, and more than human. Each book collected the civilisation of the past, and without history there is no present or future. He was Muslim, but some of his colleagues were Orthodox Christians; one was a refugee from the Congo.

Before the war Sarajevo was a cosmopolitan city, a welcoming place; Christians and Muslims lived together in peace. These relationships ran deep; even during the war one scholar was warned by a Serbian neighbour that she was on an assassination list and should get out of town. She stayed, but went into hiding in such haste that a four-volume manuscript was left behind. By some miracle it survived.

Twenty-five years before the war I visited Sarajevo. It was indeed a special place, and its citizens had every reason to love their city. We had driven through the mountains from Dubrovnik, stopping at Mostar to view the graceful arc of stone across the Neretva river, so ethereal it called forth tears. 'The famous traveler Evliya Çelebi wrote in the 17th century that: the bridge is like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other. ...I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries, but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky' [quoted in Wikipedia].

We continued to Sarajevo. The first day we wandered through the city centre; my ears immediately picked up a sound from my childhood. I was incredulous. It couldn't be. It was the sound of the trolley cars from Washington DC in the forties and fifties. For a moment I was completely dislocated: I remembered standing on the narrow platforms in the middle of the street, vertiginous for a small child: the trolley cars seemed enormous, the wheels ground very near. But how could those cars have been hauled over the nearly impassable roads we had just traversed? It would take extraordinary determination, something I was to learn that the people of Sarajevo had in extraordinary measure. In my wonder I forgot Rule 1 and mentioned the trolleys to my parents.

I kept my mouth shut for the rest of our stay in Sarajevo, but would not be shaken from my conviction. That evening we rode the trolleys to a local circus performance on the outskirts of town. It was, thankfully, as far from Barnum and Bailey as could be imagined. The chief delight of the evening was a flock of trained white pelicans who performed with intelligence and humour, as if aware of the gawky grace of their bills and bodies, and the power of their wings.

The next day we hired an elderly Muslim guide. He was a man of great courtesy and education. When the war started two decades later he came strongly to mind, and I hoped and prayed that he had gone to his reward in the paradise of Allah so that he would not see the devastation of the city he loved so much. He sat us down and spoke to us as if we were his own children; he fed us thick Turkish coffee; he took us to a private home and showed us the beautiful zenana; he gave us sticky sweets made from rose petals—so sweet that even my sweet tooth could not handle it. He showed us mosques and libraries and churches and gently opened our minds to the wonder that was Sarajevo. Finally he took us to the streetcar barns. 'Of this trolley system we are very proud,' he said. 'It comes from a city where you have lived: Washington, D.C.'

When the siege of Sarajevo started targeting the libraries, more than two million books were lost, incinerating cultural links between East and West. There is something particularly obscene about burning books. A firefighter told how the brigade struggled to fight the fires while pounded by artillery, and how they then lost water pressure. The men began to scoop up the still burning pages in their hands to try to save them. The lines on his face deepened as he spoke, the grief of war too deep for words.

There is much debate these days about the survival of the book. While it is imperative to digitize manuscripts and make them widely available through this medium, at the same time the virtual copies will never be the same as the actual book. Manuscripts are alive; they breathe, they speak; to have contact with a manuscript you are studying changes your perception and your relationship to the people who made it, and whose words it contains.

The same is true with books in a lesser way: there is a tactile relationship, the type on the page, the feel of the paper. Books convey us into liminality in a way that virtual reality never can. It should be no great mystery why the book cannot be replaced by electronic versions for the same reasons that the self-conscious mind, with its virtual, two-dimensional re-presentations cannot exist on its own, can never replace the deep mind, but is dependent on and must interact with it.

There is a lot of reconstruction going on in the Balkans. The Mostar bridge has been rebuilt, along with mosques, churches and other structures; but the 50,000 books that were destroyed there, along with the more than two million that were destroyed in Sarajevo can never be recovered. Their loss speaks of a barbarism that can erupt at any time, and in any place, and indeed is already at work among us.

Each day when I go into the Bodleian I give thanks that it is still there, that the lovely buildings are standing; that the manuscript treasures they shelter are protected, that the millions of books are safeguarded, and that in my humble way I may participate in its living, breathing tradition: but I am also, equally, only too aware of its fragility.

May it never suffer the fate of the libraries in Mostar and Sarajevo.


Anonymous Debor said...

Amen. Blessings to you. You are changing my life..

4:41 pm, February 21, 2012  
Blogger Bo said...

What a beautiful piece. Thank you for it.

6:08 pm, February 21, 2012  
Blogger Stella said...

Wonderful post Maggie. Thank you.I echo Debor's sentiments.

8:51 am, February 22, 2012  
Blogger Ian said...

Hi Maggie,

I have read Writing the Icon of the Heart twice in the last two weeks. It's one of the finest books I have read in years. In every sentence I hear the hours of work and prayer which have produced your disciplined mind and energetic writing. I am grateful to be on the receiving end of your ministry.


Ian Morgan Cron

1:58 pm, February 25, 2012  
Blogger Maggie Ross said...

Thank you, Ian; bless you.

2:11 pm, February 25, 2012  

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