Concrete (books bound in concrete) | June 4 - June 7


Just as money is – supposedly – best enjoyed when counted, books are best enjoyed when read. Each is valuable in its own right, and one should develop an appreciation for both. Books, whatever they contain, are perceived the treasure houses of learning, just as teachers are the nation’s day laborers – quite irrespective of whether they happen to be racists or sadists, ignorant or uneducated.

OSA Archives inherited a huge library from Radio Free Europe. The donation included an entire collection of spy novels as well as countless volumes of Cold War propaganda; and then there was a book entitled "Lenin and Twentieth-Century Physics" by M.E. Omelianovsky, along with Enver Hodza’s selected and complete works in twelve languages; other titles included "Anti-Communist Quotes from the Bible"; "Vierzig Jahre weisruthenische Kultur unter den Sowjets"; "Twenty-five Years in Steel Grey Uniform 1957-1982, Pictures from the Life of the Workers’ Militia" (with Kossuth Prize-winner András Kiss Nagy’s work on the cover); "Der Neger im amerikanischen Leben"; and nearly ninety thousand other books with similarly educational titles and content. The most valuable part of the library, the collection of spy novels, went missing immediately; tens of thousands of books were transferred to the Central European University’s Library; and then there were nearly fifty thousands books which we have conveniently forgotten about. Just as with every edition and reprint of "History of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the Soviet Union, a Brief Introduction"[1] (including the seventh edition, which was an exact reprint of the fifth edition of 1950 and the sixth edition of 1951, copies 660 001 – 710 00, Szikra Printhouse, Budapest, 1953), these had been hibernating in one of OSA’s external storage rooms for years. In the summer of 2007, the Archives’ staff spread out the remaining fifty thousand books in the Archives’ exhibition hall. The librarians of Central European University and the Archives picked out about twenty thousand titles which they judged to be of some interest; and then OSA threw open the doors of the Archives and invited the public to take home all the books that took their fancy, if only for their colour or their shape. After all the selection, about twelve thousand books, mostly propaganda material from the forties, fifties, sixties, seventies and eighties, published either in the east or in the west, still remained.

The books originally came from the lending library of Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty. On the evidence of the loan cards, the majority of them had never been borrowed at all: not a single name is recorded on their cards.

To find some use for the leftovers, we decided to recycle all eighteen cubic meters of them and offer them to the Ph.D. students of György Jovánovics at the Budapest Academy of Fine Art as material for a prospective work of art. To mark the Week of Books at the Centrális Galéria, János Hübler and Nemere Kerezsi will bind 12,000 volumes in concrete. The visitors may want to know why we decided against a more traditional, and less controversial, method of recycling, such as selective waste collection, for example. The answer is simple: we were looking for a more controversial, and less traditional, method of recycling.

In 2007 there were 4,500 selective waste collection points in Hungary, yielding a total of 20,000 tons of paper for that year. It is well known, however, that the waste collectors quite often mix up the material which the public has carefully placed in separate containers.[2] Another alarming possibility is that the various types of waste are mixed together in the waste management plants. For this reason we decided that, through this exhibition planned to take place during the Budapest Week of Books, we would provide an opportunity for rethinking our unreflected relationship with books.

Books (papers, documents) are an endangered species and their preservation is inseparable from the constant threat of their destruction. The earliest reported case of book burning is found in the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah (36:1-26); ever since then books and libraries have regularly been destroyed by fire or water, or other destructive forces and minds. Libraries (and archives) exist to protect (written) sources; in the name of their preservation, all the important, flammable and sensitive documents are herded together, which in fact makes them more vulnerable to destruction. Books are highly flammable, and libraries are easy to set alight. It was during the Mongol Invasion of 1258 that the House of Wisdom (Baghdad’s ancient library) was burned down (the ink washed out of the books turned the waters of the River Tigris black for months); then in 2003, disaster revisited the National Library of Baghdad during the American invasion of Iraq (one of the oldest copies of the Koran also perished); in 1562 the Bishop of Yucatan ordered the burning of the Mayas’ sacred books; in the early 18th century, a fire broke out in one of the libraries in Covent Garden, destroying the only surviving copy of Shakespeare’s Cardenio; in 1793, Robespierre obliterated the monastic libraries of France; and in 1842, Armand Dufou, director of the Paris Institute of the Blind, had the earliest books written in Braille destroyed; on May 10, 1933, the Nazis started a bonfire on the Opernplatz of Berlin, burning books taken from the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft and Humbolt University; during the Second World War, the renowned oriental library of Naples was moved to a secret location in Sicily, but while the library in Naples survived unscathed, an Allied bomb hit the secret location, destroying the entire oriental collection. The famous library of Sarajevo’s Orientalist Institute met a similar fate during the Bosnian war in 1992. (András Riedlmayer, the Hungarian-born librarian of Harvard Library’s oriental section, has been compiling all the quotes and references ever published in connection with the irretrievably lost books in an attempt to reconstruct some of the material.) And then, of course, there was the Library of Alexandria, the mother of all legends about the utopian fantasy, and catastrophic consequences, of amassing in one place all knowledge and all the books ever written.

In connection with the most famous of all libraries, the Library of Alexandria, and also in relation to the catastrophe in which it allegedly perished, there is very little information we can actually gather from authentic sources.[3] The only document that can in any sense be perceived as a brief history of the library emerges from a commentary that a 12th-century Byzantine polymath named Tzetzes wrote by way of an introduction to one of Aristophanes’ tragedies. According to the author of this commentary, which is entitled Prooemium, during the third century B.C. the library held 400,000 "mixed" and 90,00 "unmixed" rolls. (The "mixed" ones contained either more than one work or the works of more than one author.) Calculated using the figures given by Thesaurus Linguae Graecae[4], the database dedicated to ancient Greek literature, the combined literary output of all the classical Greek authors living before the end of the second century runs to 3,773,000 words, which translates into 251 rolls at 15,000 words per roll or 377 rolls at 10,000 words per roll. (Experts believe that roughly four per cent of the ancient Greek texts have survived, meaning that if we added all the lost works, classical Greek literature would take up ten to fifteen thousand rolls.)[5] The British Library held 200,000 volumes in 1830, while the book collection of Columbia University hardly reached 100,000 volumes at the turn of the twentieth century. The Reichstag library contained 400,000 books in 1944, before it was bombed. Nevertheless, the fanciful notions surrounding the Library of Alexandria, which have presented it as the treasure house of all knowledge, made it necessary to give an inflated figure for the number of books held there.

The terrible fate that befell the Library of Alexandria, and the tragic consequences for human knowledge, contributed just as much to later legends as the collection itself. A number of scholars, including Gibbon, believe that the library perished during Caesar’s Alexandrian war, fought in 48 B.C. According to Cicero, Caesar intervened in Egypt’s monarchic dispute on Cleopatra’s side. Then, on seeing the superior forces of the enemy, he set the ships on fire, and the flames spread to the harbor, too.[6] Seneca and Plutarch believed that the fire eventually also engulfed the library, although the eyewitnesses who reported on the campaign kept silent about the catastrophe. Other authors implicated later arsonists, such as Caracalla, Aurelian and Diocletian, who also inflicted great damage on Alexandria.

We do not know who set the library on fire; in fact, we cannot even be sure that anybody did, or that it actually perished by fire at all. But the fanciful notions surrounding the Library of Alexandria positively demand dramatic images of a catastrophic ending, because nothing could show the importance of preserving tradition better than the dramatic possibility of losing all classical knowledge at one stroke. In all likelihood, the books would not have survived, even if there had been no fire at all: no matter how durable papyrus has proven to be under certain conditions, from the humid, Mediterranean climate of Alexandria not a single roll has made it to our own time. Under very special circumstances, it might be possible for a roll of papyrus to survive two or three hundred years, but mice and beetles could easily have succeeded where Caesar failed – regardless of climatic conditions. Of course, a plain field mouse in the role of the perpetrator would never be as impressive as Aurelian, who obviously had every opportunity to set the library ablaze during the recapture of Alexandria in 273 and, for all we know, he may have done it, too.

Therefore, the literary works of antiquity would never have survived, had they not been copied regularly. According to Galen’s anecdote, Ptolemy III would confiscate all works of literature found on the ships in his harbor; he had them copied, kept the originals and returned the copies to the owners. Apparently, the scholars of the Mouseion (Museum) of Alexandria (a sister branch of the Library) were entrusted with the task of copying the texts and translating them into Greek. In this respect, the Library of Alexandria was no different from today’s libraries and archives: the collections are only likely to survive if the documents are regularly "migrated": from paper to microfilm, from microfilm to digital code, from celluloid to videotape, CD-Rom, DVD and computer memory, and from one server to another. Libraries (and archives) must always be on the lookout, to to stay ahead of the game in the fight against time and to avert the disaster that constantly lurks over the horizon, they should never stop making copies of their documents.

Although it generally improves a text’s chances of survival, copying itself may have catastrophic consequences: it is almost inevitable that the quality of the text will suffer in the process. The scribes of the Mouseion, the scholarly monks of mediaeval monasteries, and Gutenberg’s printers were all prone to error: sometimes they unwittingly missed out either a letter or a word, or a whole line, sometimes they were guessing, and sometimes they committed deliberate forgeries. Optical character recognition programs are not perfect, either. OSA has enlisted the help of unemployed Cambodians in its attempts to improve these degenerate scanned texts, but since English is not their native language, these conscientious Cambodians produce texts that are very different from the original.

In addition to the Library, Alexandria also had the Museum, founded by either Ptolemy I or Ptolemy II. Whichever he was, he probably modeled the institution on either Aristotle’s Lyceum or Plato’s Academy. The Museum employed the first philologists, the "lovers of words", who were poets and critics at once, and who spent most of their time comparing texts. The philologist was a product of the catastrophes that befell libraries: the librarians – the bibliophiles – collected books in order to preserve them for posterity; then, in order to save them from destruction, they had them copied. But to save the texts from the inevitable degeneration that resulted from the process of copying, they needed the philologist, who tried desperately to restore the original texts using the degenerate copies. The so-called "critical editions" are heroic monuments to these catastrophes.[7]

Brewster Kahle’s Internet Archive is set up inside the former military fortress of the Presidio in San Francisco. Besides archiving the entire Internet, it also collects and digitalizes all the music ever recorded, all the movies and television programs ever shot, and all available photographs and computer programs and; also, as founder of the Open Content Alliance, the Internet Archive also plans to digitalize all the books ever published. In fact, the objective of the organization is to store the entire sum of human knowledge. The Presidio was built right on top of the San Andreas Fault, the world’s greatest seismic hazard. To prepare for the possibility of a catastrophe, and to save the collection from certain destruction, Brewster Kahle decided to set up a mirror site of his archive; so in order to be on the safe side and preserve the treasure house of all knowledge, he signed an agreement with the new Bibliotheca Alexandria, which was rebuilt in the vicinity of the site of the ancient library of Alexandria, and was opened in 2003.

István Rév

[1] - "A Szovjetunió Kommunista (bolsevik) Pártjának története. Rövid tanfolyam" (A History of the Communist (Bolshevik) Party of the Soviet Union. A Brief Course) was first published in Russian in November 1938. The text had been approved by the Central Committee of the CPSU. The Hungarian translation was first published in Moscow in 1939.

[2] - (downloaded on May 15, 2008)

[3] - On the sketchiness of the available information and the unreliability of the sources, see: Roger S. Bagnall: Alexandria: Library of Dreams. In: Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, vol. 146. No. 4, December 2002, pp. 348-362.

[4] -

[5] - See: H. Strasburger: Studien zur Alten Geschichte 3. New York, 1990, pp. 180-181.

[6] - Edward Gibbon: The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. London, Allen Lane, 1994, vol, 9, chapter 51.

[7] - For more on the issue, see Daniel Heller-Roazen: Tradition’s Destruction: On the Library of Alexandria. In: October, vol. 100, Spring 2002, pp. 133-153.