The Reading Room Book Club Begins Today!

Hello readers! We’ve been brimming with excitement over our first read and we can’t wait to get into the thick of it. It’s a juicy one. But before we get started on our weekly chapter discussions, we should probably lay the groundwork to familiarize ourselves with the read. We spared you the strain of hunching over your computer to research the book by doing the dirty work ourselves.

Us getting pumped for the book club. Courtesy of Giphy. 

Here’s our ‘Before You Read (Abridged) Guide’ to The Bad Ass Librarians of Timbuktu.


What’s it all about?

Joshua Hammer writes on the brave journey a group of librarians in Timbuktu made from the city to its outskirts and onto Bamako, the capital city of Malain. With them they took the city’s ancient manuscripts, once hidden in houses, buried underground, or taken deep into the secrecy of caves, to keep them safe from radical Islamists occupying the city.

It was the turn of the twenty first century when they were forced to flee. The city had always been at whim of religious conflict and turmoil, but this time, the librarians feared their manuscripts may become once and for all obsolete under a new radical regime. As the radicals began to shut down radio stations, replacing them with Koranic verse, and wreaking havoc on the city and its civilians, the librarians made a leap of faith.

Our heroine is Abdel Kader Haidara, a scholarly inheritor of a collection of manuscripts who began searching for others on the behalf of Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research in Timbuktu in the 80’s. From afar, he directs the exodus and develops a scheme to bring the literature to safety.


Context Please!

Understanding the premise of the story requires a little bit of Timbuktu history. Although the city was ‘discovered’ by Europeans during the thick of the dark ages, the city had been a thriving capital of culture for centuries prior. While France and Spain were trudging through the dark ages, the city of Timbuktu had already entered an age of enlightenment and a pinnacle of literary prestige. Paths stretched long and far to meet at the major trading city, welcoming Arabs, Africans, Berbers, Tuaregs, and traders traveling from all across the continent. They came to trade minerals and spices, and with their goods came the exchange of fantastical stories and knowledge. Much of this knowledge was written down and housed within the city and some 377,000 scrolls are expected to exist.

Timbuktu today. Image courtesy of TravelDHWallpapers. 

In the 16th century the city was probably the most literate in the world (and home to the biggest bibliophiles) with over a quarter of it’s population enrolled as students. They educated themselves with these manuscripts, teaching themselves about algebra, physics, medicine, sexuality, poetry, botany, astronomy, geography, and more. The manuscripts differs in language, style, ink, and color, ranging from sweeping broad strokes of Arabic to the manicured finesse of calligraphy.

The city was a literary paradise and a melting pot of culture. But it’s beacon of literary culture was also a threat to the growing Islamic fringes – bigots, anti-Semites, anti-intellectuals – that came in a wave and condemned the literature as heretical.

The story hinges on the disruptive practices of the radicals, who time and time again throughout the city’s history, took over the town and persecuted any culture that threatened their dominance. Additionally, the growing Western dominance in the East brought French and English authorities that dismissed the manuscripts as inconsequential. With the effort of the radicals and the Europeans, the effort to conceal the ancient scrolls was doubled and many holders were forced to tuck their own inherited collections away.

The story positions itself in this history, and unravels in a narrative part journalistic, part history, part travelogue, and part thriller.


Some things to consider

The story clearly has a certain resonance with the world today. After all, in 2017 we’re not that far removed from the 80’s or the resurgence of radical groups at the turn of the century.  Today we see continued strife and the backlash of earlier conflict: the continued spread of radical Islam, fall-outs and uprisings in Egypt, Syria, and Libya, etc. If we can situate the story in it’s history and in our reality simultaneously, the story becomes a living look at how literature operates within all this turmoil. Within the tangled web of politics and civil life literature is often wiped clear from discussion. But it is a part of the discussion, and Hammer’s book brings it center stage. 

Featured image courtesy of Youtube.