Rotary talk is a real page-turner

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Morpeth Rotary Club

The talk on Books Through History was given by one of the newest members, Anja-Silvia Goeing. She is an Anniversary Fellow in History at Northumbria University. Her job before that was at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

She has degrees from Oxford, Wurzburg and Zurich. She was born in Munich and, aged three, moved to a town in Lower Saxony.

Ms Goeing is interested in how books came down to us, how they are produced and books as a cultural objects. The most dramatic aspects relate to war, looting and book burning.

She began with the famous picture of Holland House Library in London after it had been hit by 20 German bombs in 1940. People are browsing the remaining books still on the shelves, although the building was without a roof or windows.

In 1933 the Nazi Party in Germany organised a dictatorship with departments to control all culture. Nazi students burnt books to get rid of outside and foreign influences. Books were confiscated from public and private libraries. The first batch was 90,000 books burnt. They included books by Jack London and Ernest Hemingway.

Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York, in 1521 ordered the burning of all printed heretic books produced by the Lutherans. Martin Luther burnt a papal bull condemning him. Savonarola, in charge of Florence in 1497, collected ‘sinful’ luxury goods, including books, and burnt them in front of the town hall.

One of the most important books is the Luttrell Psalter in the British Library. It is one of the most striking to survive from the Middle Ages — a beautiful, illustrated book, produced 1320–1340 for private use by a wealthy man. It had many images of life at that time and illustrations of monsters of greatly imaginative form.

As well as deliberate burning, there has been accidental burning. Most famous is the burning of the large library at Alexandria in 48BC as the Romans were conquering Egypt, with the loss of some of the only manuscripts to come down from ancient times.

St Paul’s Cathedral and library burnt down in the Great Fire of London in 1666. Thomas Hollis, of London, raised funds in 1764 to buy books for Harvard College in New England when the library burnt down due to candles being used in the next door student accomodation.

There is danger to books from political terror. The ‘cultural revolution’ in China burnt many books. War leaders would often take treasures, including books, back to their own country as loot. Much of British war loot is located in the British Museum. It includes the Rosetta Stone, which was taken from the French, who had taken it from the Egyptians. It is a text written in Greek, Egyptian and hieroglyphs and is the key to translating hieroglyphs.

Books can be seen as the bearers of cultural memory with a great impact on cultural knowledge, especially in pre modern times.

A vote of thanks was given by Laurie Walker.