The Continuing Return of Library Loot

My new glasses has not only inspired me to erect a tower of books to read, but they’ve also got me running to the public library to grab more books. Despite having a ton of stuff on my plate I’m trying to read, or would like to read in the new future I couldn’t restrain myself earlier today from grabbing more books. Like I said last week, it’s been a tradition of us book bloggers to write about the different books we picked up at the library that week. In turn, we post a link to our post on a blogger’s page so readers can see what we hope to be reading over the coming weeks. Currently, our Library Loot co-hosts are Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief

Of the six books I’m featuring in this post, all but one is nonfiction. This week’s Library Loot has a definite global focus. Both Jasmin Darznik (Iran) and Bassem Youssef (Egypt) were born in the Middle East but now live in the United States.  Anjan Sundaram is an Indian national currently residing in Rwanda. Both Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger are Israelis. Jim Crace hails from the United Kingdom as did the late Tony Judt. If I can somehow find a way to get through these books in the coming weeks I’m sure I’ll find them enlightening and entertaining.

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My Tower of Books

A long overdue trip to the optometrist resulting in a fresh set of glasses with an updated prescription has got me all fired up to read more books from my personal library. No better way to do this than grab a bunch of books off the shelves and stack ’em in my living room. By putting them all in one place I’m hoping it will focus my attention on this batch of books and not the ten million other things I’m currently trying to read. It’s also allowed me to grab one or two of these books and stick ’em in my backpack before I head out to the coffee shop or city park to do some reading.

As you can see, this tower I’ve erected is a hodge-podge of books. Three are novels, with philosophy central to one of them. Speaking of philosophy, The Trial of Socrates as the title would lead us to believe also deals with that subject. Religion is the central focus of three of the books, two of which were published over 70 years ago. The memoir, while not 70 years old, recalls life during that era. Lastly, Wiesel’s essay collection is old as well, published back in 1968. With all that in mind it looks like I’ve assembled a promising tower of books.

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Books About Books: The Book Thieves by Anders Rydell

You might remember from one of my previous posts it’s good I read Adam Kirsch’s The People and the Books before I read Mark Glickman’s Stolen Words because it gave me a deeper understanding of Judaism’s most revered texts. This in turn provided me with greater context and understanding of the Nazi’s widespread plundering and destruction of the Jewish books of occupied Europe. Likewise, by reading Stolen Words prior to Anders Rydell’s The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance has only enhanced my understanding of the Nazi’s mission to forcibly acquire, and in some cases destroy Europe’s books.

According to Rydell, a Swedish journalist and editor, the Nazi’s had a well-formulated plan. As they conquered Europe, special teams would confiscate not just Jewish books and books owned by Jews or Jewish entities but any books of a “degenerate” nature. Usually, that meant books deemed Communist or associated with Freemasons. (The Nazi’s loathed Freemasonry, thinking its arcane rituals too akin to Jewish religious rites.) Once they had all forbidden books they wanted (and destroyed what they couldn’t use) they could, like something out of Orwell’s 1984, deny the enslaved masses access to contrary opinions, thus giving the Nazis a monopoly on the truth. In time, the Germans would go one step further. Select academics and government propagandists would intensely study the confiscated books, mining them for information to help promulgate the Nazi’s twisted pseudo scientific agenda.

Just like with Stolen Words, one walks away from the Book Thieves saddened that so many of the confiscated books are lost forever, or exist in libraries or private collections and can never be returned to their rightful owners. (Or worse, their current possessors refuse to repatriate them to their owner’s descendants.) Extensive libraries across Europe from Vilnius to Rome vanished into the Nazi’s black hole. The Turgenev Library of Paris, famous for its collection of Russian materials, including Marxist texts was shipped to Germany in its entirety. Later, when the Soviets took Berlin they in turn took the books to the USSR. Sadly, 75 years later only a fraction of the Turgenev’s books exist. Sad also to think close to 100 million books were destroyed when the Germans invaded the USSR.

The Book Thieves is an excellent book. Not only does it make a worthy companion to Stolen Words, but it’s great reading for bibliophiles and history buffs.

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The Return of Library Loot

Been a long time since I’ve done a Library Loot post. Therefore, it is high time I did one. For those of you who aren’t familiar with this meme, it’s been a tradition of many of us book bloggers to write about the different books we’ve picked up at the library that week. In turn, we post a link to our post on a blogger’s page so readers can see what we hope to be reading over the next week or so. Currently, our Library Loot co-hosts are Claire from The Captive Reader and Linda from Silly Little Mischief

Of the six books I’m featuring in this post, three are fiction and three are nonfiction. At a quick glance, I can tell you the bulk of these were published within the last year or so. Two however are older books, with one published in 2007 and the other in 2001. I grabbed one because of friend’s recommendation, and two have been on my To Be Read list (TBR) for a long time. The rest I checked out just because they looked promising.

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About Time I Read It: God and His Demons by Michael Parenti

I was introduced to the writing of Michael Parenti a million years ago. During my freshman year in college the professor of my Introduction to American Politics class assigned four or five books to read and one of which was Parenti’s  Democracy for the Few. Impressed by Parenti’s radical approach to addressing the pressing political and social issues of the day, during my early post college years I went on to read a pair of his other books, namely The Sword and the Dollar: Imperialism, Revolution, and the Arms Race and Inventing Reality: The Politics of New Media. Then, as the years went by like many of us I lost much of of my youthful idealism and with it my hunger for the writing of Michael Parenti But like an old friend you slowly drifted away from but never forget, I always perked up whenever hearing he’d written something new.

In 2010 I learned he’d written yet another book, called God and His DemonsInstead taking on the evils of unchecked capitalism or modern-day imperialism Parenti turned his sights on the abuses of religion, especially how it’s used to fleece and control the unsuspecting masses. Since Parenti is a leftist critic of the prevailing political and social order, I was curious to see how he would approach the topic of religion. I mentally added God and His Demons to my To Be Read List (TBR) and like I did so many other books promptly forgot about it.

Then a few months ago I requested my public library add the book to its catalog of available Kindle books via Overdrive. Not long after submitting my request I received an email from the library letting me know they’d purchased a copy, and that copy was available for me to check out. I downloaded God and His Demons to my Kindle Paperwhite and promptly began reading it.

If one is to properly critique something, it’s best to define exactly what one is critiquing. With that in mind Parenti begins his book by looking at what we in the West consider God. According to him, God is seen as being one of two things. One, God viewed as some kind of impersonal, supernatural life force that governs or in some way provides order to the universe. On the other hand, others see God a personified being, not only anthropomorphized but also according to critics like Parenti prone to fits of jealousy, wrath and genocide (and the occasional loving father or deliverer from evil). From there Parenti goes on to show how throughout history many have used religion as a handy tool to oppress, enslave or manipulate.

Even though Parenti is an atheist I got the impression from reading this book his goal isn’t to attack religion per se, and certainly not all religious believers. I think he mainly wants to show how religion has been used by those in power to maintain control. In contrast to many critics of religion, his targets aren’t entirely the Abrahamic faiths of the West. In one of his later chapters he spends a great deal of time showing how the ruling Buddhist clerics of Tibet maintained their oppressive feudal control over the country’s peasantry before deposed by the Chinese.

While books like The God Delusion, God is Not Great and The End of Faith might have made headlines, God and his Demons never achieved the same level of notoriety. That seems unfair because it’s a worthy book in its own right and deserves to be read along the three above mentioned religious critiques. I’m not sure God and His Demons rank among the best books I’ve read this year, but I enjoyed it. And trust me, that’s never a bad thing.

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Books About Books: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer

A book entitled The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts has got to be a bibliophile’s dream. About a year after seeing reviews of Joshua Hammer’s book flood the Internet I spotted an available copy at my public library. So, with a title like that of course I grabbed it.

For those of you who might not be familiar with the story, 500 hundred years ago the North African city of Timbuktu was the Oxford or Cambridge of the medieval Islamic world. Scholars, clerics, jurists and doctors from across the  Muslim realms came to Timbuktu to do research and exchange ideas. This was made possible in no small part by the city’s extensive collection of manuscripts covering a diverse array of subjects including philosophy, religion, science and medicine. Over time, even though Timbuktu slipped into obscurity, the manuscripts nevertheless remained hidden away in places like mosques and privates homes. Until about 10 years ago, Abdul Kader Haidara, a forward thinking Malian realized it was high time to gather the countless manuscripts spread throughout the city and place them in one climate controlled library. This would not only make the aged texts easily accessible for the world’s scholars, but more importantly it would protect them from the ravages of time and the elements.

But as the old saying goes, no good plan survives contact. In 2012 when Islamist fighters conquered the area and began imposing their interpretation of Sharia law, the city’s new rulers took a dim view of the manuscripts. Fearing for good reason the Muslim extremists saw the texts as religiously impure, Haidara made sure the library’s manuscripts were secretly extracted and hidden away throughout the area. With out saying too much, had it not been for Haidara and a number of ordinary Malian citizens who risked their lives to hide the manuscripts countless irreplaceable writings would have went up in smoke.

One of the cool surprises of The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu is Hammer devotes a significant amount of time showing how Mali found itself in such a dire situation. In only a few years Mali went from West African backwater to a hip, up and coming cultural Mecca, once the world discovered the nation’s vibrant indigenous music scene. But once Mali’s ethnic rivalries were amplified by larger geopolitical struggles the country became a battleground. Therefore, when the Islamists do come to Timbuktu, you the reader are able to understand the conflict in its fuller context.

Combining elements of travelogue, battlefield reporting and historical writing The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu did not leave this bibliophile disappointed.

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Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion edited by Karen Garst

Over the years I’ve read countless anthologies and oral histories. During that time, while reading those kind of books not once had I read anything by a person I knew personally. That is, until now. And when it happened it was a complete surprise.

Early one evening after work I once again found myself at the public library rummaging through the shelves of newly acquired books. Just before I decided to leave I thought I’d take one more pass through the shelves and when I did I spotted a copy of Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life Without Religion. Since I have a soft spot for stuff written by women who’ve left their faith communities I happily grabbed it.

A few days later while reading the autobiographical pieces collected in Women Beyond Believe I began noticing more and more of the contributors happened to live in my current hometown of Portland, Oregon. Finding that a bit odd, I looked at the editor’s info as presented in the book. Not only is Karen Garst a fellow Portlander, but so are also most or close to all the women featured in her collection. You can imagine my surprise when I learned one of those women I know from several Meet-Ups I’ve attended over the last couple of years. Small world, aint it?

The roughly two dozen women who’ve contributed to this book are former believers representing a broad spectrum of Judeo-Christian religions. Be it Catholic, Mormon, Jewish or Protestant all of these women for a variety of reasons left their respective faiths. Each one of their stories makes for worthwhile reading.

I’m glad Garst put together this fine collection because frankly, there’s a need for books like hers. While there’s no shortage of books written by avowed atheists, a lot of them are written by men. With a few notable exceptions like Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Betty Bogaard and Candace R. M. Gorham it tends to be a male-dominated field. Perhaps with the successful publication of Women Beyond Belief we’ll see more books written by women of non-faith.

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