The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer
4 stars out of 5
This is an intriguing book no matter which way you slice it. 377,000 medieval manuscripts in danger from being destroyed barbaric zealots who have the city of Timbuktu under their sway, and the only people who can save the day are the librarians and archivists who collected and curated the tomes in the first place. This book promised a lot, and somehow it delivered.
The book starts with the collection of the manuscripts and the history of the city of Timbuktu. It talks about the immense intellectual tradition of the ancient city, and how over the years the city has perpetually been in the midst of a tug-of-war between reactionary conservatism and loose liberalism. The author then details the latest wave of dogmatic conservatism to sweep Timbuktu, Al-Qaeda. With the manuscripts under threat by the foreigners, the librarians of Timbuktu undertake a daring evacuation of all 377,000 books to safety in Mali’s capital, Bamako. In the end the books were smuggled to safety not a moment too soon as the invaders destroyed what books they could find before fleeing ahead of the French army before they were finally routed from the country.
This book is a riveting read. The author uses his best journalistic skills to put all the pieces together so that the story is complete. He gives the reader an understanding of the people of Timbuktu and Mali, the history of the city and the region, the social and political climate of the area, past and present, and the rich heritage that Malians have kept hidden for decades. It’s a stunning work that gives the reader everything they need to know to truly understand what is happening and why it is happening.
On that note, some may not like it very much because it does digress from the main keep-the-books-safe narrative. It talks about the different members of Al-Qaeda and their individual histories, it talks about the legacy of French colonialism on the region, and the ever-simmering tensions between the Malians and the nomadic Tuareg people. He gives the readers all the parts of the story, but some may find the extra detail boring. Personally, I found it fascinating to read, I really felt like a had a handle on Mali’s story instead of just a partial picture. The author did well and the book was enjoyable throughout.
The only caveat I have for the story are the parts where it seems like previous articles the author has written slip into the larger narrative. This usually involves a sudden shift in tense and perspective and while it is not bad writing, it does take the reader out of the story somewhat when the point of view suddenly shifts from third person the first, or vice-versa. Other than that, it was a well written and smooth narrative with a voice that suited the subject matter.
I listened to this book as an audiobook and while the performance was adequate that was all I could say about it. The author’s accent seemed a strange choice for a story set in Africa, and there were a number of times when the narration itself felt choppy. I almost had the impression that the narrator had recorded some of the more difficult to pronounce words separately and they were later inserted into the appropriate place which made the cadence of the reading somewhat odd. I think this audiobook can be skipped.