Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

I picked up this book for two reasons. First, I heard an interview with the author, Joshua Hammer, on NPR, and I’ve never disliked a book that I read based on an interview from that source. But second, and maybe most important, is that I absolutely love the title. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu makes me want to know more.

I’ve known more than one bad-ass librarian in my time, but never one from Timbuktu. In my opinion, librarians, as the keepers of truth and knowledge, are the coolest people ever. And this is a non-fiction book, so I was eager to learn the whole bad-ass story. I’ve got to say, the book doesn’t disappoint.

First of all, it taught me a lot about the Republic of Mali, and about the city of Timbuktu. Before this, all I basically knew was that Timbuktu is in the middle of nowhere. What I didn’t know was that it was at one point a major epicenter of education, civilization, and enlightenment.

Because of that, scattered all over the country are hundreds of thousands of centuries-old manuscripts, sometimes bound in leather, sometimes illuminated in gold leaf and gorgeous geometric patterns, that treat subjects including mathematics, medicine, astronomy, poetry, diversity, philosophy, religion, and history. These manuscripts are hand-written, one of a kind, priceless works of art that are irreplaceable  pieces of our human heritage.

In this book we meet Abdel Kader Haidara, a lifelong lover of books, who makes a career of traveling throughout the country to convince people to bring their books out of their dusty trunks and give them to libraries in Timbuktu, where they can be restored, preserved, archived, and made available to the public. He would spend weeks on end on camels and donkeys or floating down rivers and trekking through the desert, building up trust, to achieve this goal. In the end, Timbuktu became the repository for 377,000 ancient volumes. That’s pretty darned impressive.

And then, unfortunately, the country was torn by war. Al-Qaida took over Northern Mali, including Timbuktu, and began employing measures ever more violent, destructive, and austere. If they were to discover that there were ancient, secular, and scientific books lying around, they’d surely destroy them. And it was a very near thing.

The book also discusses how Al-Qaida happened to be there in the first place, and the battles and bloodshed resulting therefrom. It familiarizes you with several brutal leaders and their wrong-headed thought processes. It also makes you realize what a risk Haidara was making to protect these manuscripts.

In the end, Haidara, with the help of a large group of people who were literally risking their lives, smuggled in hundreds and hundreds of trunks, loaded these trunks up at night, and then carried them, a few at a time, to safehouses throughout the region.

As the war heated up, it became clear that even these safehouses weren’t going to be safe. So they decided that they’d have to smuggle all 377,000 books to southern Mali, where Al-Qaida wasn’t in control. To do this, they had to drive past check points. Many drivers were arrested. Ultimately, they put many of the trunks on boats and nervously floated them down the river. But in the end, all the books were saved.

We owe Haidara and his team a debt of gratitude. And I’d also like to thank Joshua Hammer for sharing this amazing story with the world. Score one for the good guys!

Check out this book. It’s bad-ass.

Bad-Ass book

As a matter of fact, I wrote a book, too! Check it out! http://amzn.to/2mlPVh5

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