Bloody Enlightenment

Review of Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book by Shubigi Rao (Singapore: Rock Paper Fire, 2016)
by Diane Josefowicz

If the history of the destruction of books teaches anything, it is that books tend to bother people who value power more than truth. Because books are read and understood in many ways, they threaten settled and conventional ways of knowing. Collections of books, such as libraries, concentrate this threat. Every library emanates a force that exceeds the sum of its holdings. This evanescent power, which can prompt both passionate defense and violent attack, is the subject of Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book by Shubigi Rao.

Recently shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize for non-fiction in English, Pulp is the first of a projected five-volume history of book destruction, which Rao calls libricide. A writer, artist, and filmmaker, Rao has turned her talents to elucidating our relationship to books. A loose and idiosyncratic history of print culture is the result. Pulp is the fruit of four years of investigation at public and private libraries around the world. From this epic journey Rao has collected stories, impressions, photographs, and other artifacts related to her theme. Ambitious as it may already seem, the projected five-volume set is merely a single facet of an even larger undertaking that will eventually include film and visual art.

Rao’s personal history animates these pages. “I grew up,” she tells us on the first page “as many self-contained but isolated children do, safely cocooned in the rich, eclectic library of my parents.” This safety proves sadly fleeting, and its tragic fate is linked to the fortunes of this marvelous family library. When Rao was ten years old, her family was robbed, and the intruders destroyed the library. As her parents slowly rebuilt their collection, Rao noticed other, more insidious forces undermining their progress. “We would steadily hemorrhage books through theft, termites, water and house-moving,” she recalls, before imparting the harrowing story of how, when they moved from Darjeeling, a truck packed full of their books mysteriously failed to arrive at their new home in Delhi. There were other disasters, too. “My parents’ library unravelled as fast as their marriage,” Rao confesses, and in the wake of her parents’ separation, her father “kept the bulk of the collection.” After he died, “far from us in the Eastern Himalaya, everything vanished again.”

Among other things, Pulp is a catalogue of Rao’s literary preferences and a history of how they came to be. Unsurprisingly, her reading reflects her preoccupation with the central concern of any librarian: how to order an unruly mass of apparently similar objects that, beyond a certain point, will simply defy categorization. “My parents’ library shaped me into an anachronistic child of the Enlightenment,” she writes, “with the squishy innards of an incurable Romantic”—a satisfyingly contradictory self-description that is also an excellent précis of the central problem posed by the library, as a dream of order which we try to map onto a fundamentally and intransigently disorderly reality.

Rao makes no apologies for her reading, which ranges from the familiar heavy-hitters of poststructuralism to relatively obscure early modern authors whose works sit at the intersection of early modern science and print culture. Rao describes her reading as a fateful wandering in European history’s stacks: “So if I start by being enamoured of Kircher, it is inevitable that I will collect Borges, and Eco, and Manguel and then Milton and Shelley and Hitchens and Spinoza and the whole bloody Enlightenment.” With Pulp, Rao hopes to encompass a “multiplicity of narratives,” and to show ”where and how and through whose agencies they diverge.” Her collection of these narratives includes not only the authors of books but also their printers, publishers, and librarians

Censorship is also taken up. Rao relates the story of Israël de Paull, the printer who brought out Spinoza’s banned Tractatus Theologico Politicus (1670), a critique of organized religion so potentially incendiary Spinoza published it anonymously in Latin rather than Dutch. De Paull’s story has recently been resurrected by scholars, opening yet another window onto the astonishing world of early modern print culture. A different line of inquiry concerns the relationship between the real and the fictive, between the document and the reality toward which it gestures in various ways, some quite magical. At a library in Amsterdam, Rao immerses herself in Athanasius Kircher’s Mundus Subterraneus (1665), entranced by his beliefs that “the Earth was alive, vegetable matter could be human, and anything could be transmutated.” After four hours of rapt reading, “I finally look up, into the afternoon Amsterdam light, to see a llama stroll past the window.” What can’t a good book do?

Although the destruction of books and book collections is Rao’s primary concern, Pulp sprawls outward to encompass other themes, beginning with the nature of collection itself. More than the sum of its parts, any collection reflects decisions about what to include and exclude, as well as histories of materials lost to natural, social and political forces. Like a person, a collection such as a library has a history and an identity. Widening her lens, Rao also explores how languages are themselves library-like repositories of vital information. When she talks of books and languages together, she attends movingly to what happens on their margins. Margins, of course, make room for the reader to converse with the text in the intimate space of reading. Rao’s footnotes and handwritten annotations jostle companionably, inviting the reader to add her own voice to the colloquy.

Pulp contains much to charm and fascinate, but perhaps the most valuable segment is Rao’s catalogue of lost libraries. Although her catalogue is not complete (and she makes no claims for its exhaustiveness), it ranges widely, from the famously lost library of Alexandria to the less well-known destruction of Ashurbanipal’s library in ancient Assyria, to the library of the Cairo Institute, which was consumed by a fire during the unrest of 2011. For Rao the lost library is a deeply personal and even existential concern. After her mother and father were married, her mother wrote her new husband’s name in every book of her collection.  This astonishing generosity—astonishing to me, anyway, as a still-married survivor of a nuptial merger of two large and passionately curated libraries—was followed by an insidious decimation. As Rao’s parents’ marriage faltered, her father quietly removed his wife’s name from the flyleaf of each book, an expedient that later allowed him to claim the whole library as his own. With Pulp, Rao has turned this petty erasure into a searching and occasionally transcendent (that llama!) work of art.


Diane Josefowicz's writing has appeared in ConjunctionsFenceDame Magazine, and Necessary Fiction. She presently serves as Director of Research for Swing Left, a progressive political organization.