I was homeschooled until the fifth grade, so the library – the Morrisson-Reeves Library in Richmond, Indiana, to be precise – was central to my education. Every Monday, my mother would set my sister and me loose in the children’s section, and by the end of the day, we’d have a wagonload of books to get us through the week. On one of those Mondays, I picked up Jane Goodall’s “My Life with the Chimpanzees,” the first book I ever read about Africa. When I lived in Kenya years later, sometimes the only library I had access to was my parents’. In college and graduate school, I mostly hated the library, which I associated with the depressing, brutalist buildings I chained myself to during reading week. I am now a proud cardholder and frequent user of the award-winning Austin Public Library system, where I recently picked up “The Library Book.”
I picked it up because I like libraries and because I like very old things, which tend to be housed in libraries. Susan Orlean’s account of the Los Angeles Public Library, and the fire that consumed it in 1986, takes us deep into the stacks and crevices of the library and beyond by weaving together three threads. The first tells the history of the LA Public Library itself, which, necessarily, incorporates the history of libraries across America and even worldwide. The second recounts the 1986 fire, its aftermath and the ensuing investigation. The third is a series of vignettes of the Central branch as it is today, including all of the volumes it contains – from maps and art to, of course, books – and the services it provides – from hangout spaces for angsty teens to services for those experiencing homelessness.
All three threads illustrate how powerful libraries and their contents are. But “The Library Book” is also an excellent reminder that while library tomes have much to tell us about geopolitics, libraries themselves are fixtures of geopolitical history. Recall the great library of Alexandria, which most likely burned when Roman Emperor Aurelian invaded the city in the third century. Recount all the times throughout history that regimes, perhaps most notoriously the Nazis, burned books that deviated from their ideology or threatened their power and in doing psychologically wounded those who valued those books. And it’s not only totalitarian fascists who try to control books to better consolidate their power. For 400 years, the Catholic Church maintained a list of forbidden books that it deemed essentially heretical or erroneous, and threatening to Catholics’ fate. (In one rather distressing illustration for an edition of the “Index Librorum Prohibitorum,” the Holy Spirit is portrayed as providing the flames for a book-burning fire.)
Whether in third century Egypt or 20th century California, whether the destruction was intentional or not, the loss of a great book collection has a profound and lasting impact on a community. So, too, will this book.
Emma Pennisi, editor
The story of Central America is essentially a search for identity. “Central America: A Nation Divided” by Ralph Lee Woodward chronicles that search by exploring the issue of Central American unity. Since the early days of European colonization, Central America has struggled to define its relationship with its neighbors, with the rest of the world and with itself, as reflected in the title of the book (though I would suggest that the title should end with a question mark).
In exploring 500 years of history, recurring patterns and structural characteristics begin to emerge. Some are more obvious than others. The emergence of corruption and cheap labor, for example, may have been the product of necessity but over time became ingrained in the fabric of these countries’ societies. Other processes are more nuanced. There have been swings of political and economic power between groups on the left and right, which has had an impact on institutional development, particularly when it comes to the military and the church. The author goes to great lengths to illustrate how these seemingly constant features of the region are uniquely expressed at different points in history.
Central America’s love-hate relationship with the rest of the world – a product of both the size and location of the countries in this region – is particularly interesting. Some of these countries heavily depend on foreign markets and capital for their development and survival. But we at GPF tend to think of Central America merely as the United States’ backyard, an area in which Russia or China can irritate Washington close to home without actually provoking a strong response. In this book, however, we can see that these countries experienced courtship and competition with world powers even before the U.S. became the hegemon it is today – a not-so-obvious dynamic now that the United States plays such a prominent role in regional and global affairs.
One country that was largely left out of the discussion was Panama (as was, to a lesser extent, Costa Rica). Woodward purposefully kept Panama out of the book because of its colonial ties to Colombia and because it developed largely independently from the rest of Central America. While this omits arguably the most geopolitically relevant country in the region, I can also see why the author chose to focus on countries that are highly intertwined. Regardless, this book provides an excellent foundation for understanding how and why Central American countries behave the way they do.
Allison Fedirka, analyst