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Tuesday 19 April 2011

The Alhambra-Pad

“Libraries are the souls of memories” I recently came across this splendid if somewhat obscure quote in a paper called ‘Russian libraries, an indestructible part of national memory: A study guide for librarians’ by Victoria Spain from Hofstra University in New York.

I was reminded of this on Sunday, when I saw the TV Programme When the Moors Ruled in Europe by Bettany Hughes. For a large part of the programme she was in the Alhambra in Granada. I first visited the Alhambra in the late sixties when I was spending a term in Granada as part of my studies. Now visitors are severely rationed - because there have been so many visitors. But then you could wander freely around the rooms, sit in a stone window seat by a lattice window screen and listen to the sound of running water. It was a wonderfully calm, cool haven where we would go to escape from the baking heat of the city.

Apart from reminding me of this, Bettany Hughes also reminded me that the contents of the library were lost in 1499 when Cardinal Cisneros made a huge bonfire of Arabic manuscripts in an effort to obliterate all trace of the infidel. Thankfully he did leave the building standing, but destroyed a library of incalculably valuable documents in the name of the ‘true faith’. There are numerous examples of similar losses in history, some at the arrogant hands of ideologues, others through accident, indifference and negligence.

Of course, we all have personal libraries – which constitute our own personal histories - both physically and in our memories. A few years ago I had to clear my parents’ house. My father in particular had been a regular and enthusiastic book buyer from an early age. Apart from the crowded shelves, there were cupboards full of books, there were cases of books in the loft and even the garage had stacks of book-filled boxes. I couldn’t bring myself to throw them out or donate them to charity without going through them. They represented a life. It was a long job. Neither I nor my siblings could house them all. Some of the books had deteriorated badly, with brittle yellowed paper and spines, and had become unreadable. I made a note to buy replacements of some – after all, a book’s value is its content. Some, however, were irreplaceable because they were long out of print.

We took those we wanted to keep, our respective children filled some gaps in their own book collections, and a large number of boxes went to second hand book shops or charities. What was left was not burnt, but thrown away in sad black bags with the rubbish. And so a personal collection of books disintegrated and the memory of what they were and meant was on its way to being lost.

I am rather cheered by the thought that a lifetime’s reading can now be preserved on a Kindle or an iPad, well, a few Kindles and iPads.

Cardinal Cisneros would be furious.

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