Eric W. Steinhauer is a household name among German-speaking bibliophiles. Steinhauer, a lawyer-cum-theologian-cum-librarian, has carved out a niche for himself over the years as an expert on the dark side of books and libraries: libraries as places of death and burial; contagious and deadly books; the association between libraries, the Devil, and monsters… His books are perhaps best characterized as non-fictional spinoffs of The Name of the Rose, with each of them discussing a different aspect of the grisly association between books and death. After several such volumes, published from 2006 onward, he brought all of these topics together into a primer on the dark side of the book, which came out in 2014 at the publisher Lambert Schneider.
Book Tombs (Büchergrüfte), as the volume is called, is fairly short at 134 pages and might best be thought of as an essay about the future of the book. Steinhauer is writing not least from the position of a library director who is unsatisfied with the role that libraries are increasingly playing in a digital world: places to hang out and work on one’s laptop, with perhaps a paper notebook alongside, but with increasingly few actual books being perused by the patrons. Afraid of being reduced to insignificance over the course of the 21st century, many libraries are trying to make themselves as friendly as possible to the reader, in order to attract a varied clientele.
Steinhauer understands where this reasoning comes from, but claims that the nice and fluffy approach is insufficient to secure the future of the library. Instead, he makes a proposal that is both simple and ingenious: in order to have a future, libraries must purposely cultivate their dark aspects. In his own words, “the library of the future will be morbid, or it will cease to be.” He slowly develops this idea during the course of the book, and only states it clearly at the end, so let’s first follow him along the way.
He starts with a chapter on the most obvious connection between books and death, which is at the same time perhaps the most forgotten one. In a time when most public libraries are large well-lit spaces with light music playing in the background, we have forgotten that libraries used to be places to preserve human remains. The library-as-burial-place has a rich history – Steinhauer traces it back to ancient Rome, where strict rules on intramural interment were sometimes loosened to allow burial in a library, down through the Middle Ages and right up to the 19th century. The connection worked both ways, so that just as people could be buried in a library, a library could be constructed on top of a burial site. Even today, libraries within secularized churches preserve the remains of people who wanted to be buried close to God, but instead found themselves beneath the Geography section.
Of course, any kind of burial is dark, and personally, I could hardly wish for a better place to have my remains interred than beneath the right kind of library. Then again, it is hard to say what the scores of people who were interred in a library against their will would comment on such burial practices. Before “cabinets of curiosities” were divided up into museums and libraries in the 18th century, it was common for this sort of library to include skeletons and other human remains as anatomical exhibits. These were so common that it’s hard to find much data on them, since few contemporaries would note such trivial details. The human bones were often of unknown origin, but it’s reasonable to assume that many belonged to executed criminals, whose mortal remains could legally be used for scientific purposes. Less common, but still not unheard of, were books bound in human skin, oftentimes exposés of the lives of famous criminals, bound in their personal skin to enhance the reading experience.
One other peculiar creature that Steinhauer has brought back from obscurity is the library mummy, which was a common feature of European libraries between the 17th and 19th centuries, when most of them were relocated to museums. The connection between books and mummies is multi-layered and Steinhauer revels in its unwrapping [pun intended]. Apart from gracing many library halls as Oriental curiosities, mummies were themselves both texts (as the wooden coffins were covered in inscriptions) and sources of texts (especially Books of the Dead, which were regularly tucked into the wrappings). Lastly, it continues to be debated by historians whether mummies were in fact used in the 19th century to make paper. As the story goes, the US imported mummy wrappings from Egypt on at least one occasion to feed its booming paper industry; the story is likely exaggerated, but as the Italians say, se non è vero, è ben trovato.
Another creature given prominence in Book Tombs is the library vampire. Here, Steinhauer again shows himself an expert on the subject, even though the reader is occasionally unsure how vampirology ties into the general framework of his book. At first, we get the impression that vampires belong into this narrative because they were often written about in books; of course, the same can be said of any other dark and paranormal phenomenon, ever. Only later are we directed to the prominent position that books and libraries tend to play in all the major vampire novels. In a detour into literary criticism, Steinhauer highlights a literary device that was used by Bram Stoker in Dracula: at the end of the novel, Stoker’s characters are amazed that apart from their own notes and diaries, they cannot find any evidence that the action which had just transpired actually took place. In this tongue-in-cheek way, Stoker underlined that vampires are nothing but paper beings, daemons conjured up from books and entirely dependent on them.
In a book which discusses the connection between books and death, an obvious question is, what about the death of books themselves? Steinhauer briefly mentions mold, as well as the “slow fire” that is consuming old books printed on acidic paper. Soon after that, however, we reach the subject of modern-day destruction of books, especially by libraries during their deaccessioning. Here the book is at its weakest, as Steinhauer isn’t quite sure what his opinion is, so he appears to be trying to cobble one together as he writes.
He admits quite candidly that German libraries trash enough books each year to fill a decent-sized university library. Is this good or bad? We’re not sure. He opens up the debate about whether libraries should aim to preserve books even if these aren’t being loaned out or consulted anymore. After a brief discussion, he concludes with a closing sentence, “it is reasonable to preserve old books,” which leaves a very lukewarm impression. He also occasionally slides into cynicism. For example, he remarks that thanks to the great losses of ancient literature during the Middle Ages, we can more easily discern the masterpieces of antiquity without them being obscured by the chaff of mediocre writers. Does this mean that it would be easier to appreciate the greatness of Dickens and Browning, had all the works of their less-notable Victorian contemporaries suddenly disappeared? If anything, I think the truth is the opposite.
Of course, Steinhauer is still writing from the position of a library director here. Is he intentionally sounding indecisive in order to avoid attracting the ire of his colleagues? Nicholson Baker created a storm when his book Double Fold came out in 2001, but Baker was a freelance novelist, an outsider, and thus could afford his campaign against libraries’ destruction of books. I imagine Steinhauer has his reasons why he prefers to tread lightly on such topics. Perhaps he also publishes more opinionated writings under a pseudonym somewhere. Only time will tell.
If books can be discarded and killed by their owners, they also have some power to return the favour. Here Steinhauer’s narrative again becomes gripping, as he discusses all the ways that books are able to harm and kill people, both in urban myths and in reality. His discussion of books as supposed carriers or germs and disease, which was a major public scare at the turn of the 20th century, feels remarkably prescient. After lounging in obscurity for a century, the books-as-disease-carriers myth has made a triumphant return during the Covid pandemic. At least here in Slovenia, libraries have instituted obligatory waiting periods before a returned book can be loaned out again. They have also mostly removed, to the great annoyance of yours truly, the shelves with free books which were usually on offer in front of the library door.
It turns out that paper mills were also major carriers of death and disease, this time for real. Before the production of paper from wood was invented, the raw material for paper tended to be old rags, or in other words, clothes which were either discarded by their owners or taken from the dead. Wars and epidemics provided fertile harvesting ground for the latter approach, but when piles of rags were carted from plague-ridden cities down to paper mills, the plague-carrying fleas came along for the ride. And just in case some workers survived the infectious illnesses, the survivors were later brought down by lung disease which was endemic in the dust-filled mills. – It just looks like a piece of paper, but several people had to die so that you could hold it in your hand.
This, as I see it, is very close to the core message of Büchergrüfte. By stressing the ways that books killed and were killed for, the ways that they died and cheated death, and how they oftentimes contained death in their midst, Steinhauer imbues these seemingly trivial objects with a gravity that most of us hadn’t been aware of. It is this gravity which draws our gaze, and which, to extend the metaphor, makes it much harder to simply lift the books up and throw them away like common trash. It is the connection with death that, most importantly, commands respect. Steinhauer’s dictum, which I mentioned earlier, could thus be rephrased as follows: “the library of the future will command respect, or it will cease to be.”
Despite its occasional shortcomings, Steinhauer’s volume is, at the end of the day, a very valuable book. He reminds the reader that the Internet might be a great repository of texts, but only in a library can one find, well, books – books as objects that contain not just text, but also a (hi)story which connects the reader to his own past and those of other people who lived and died with this book before him. To conclude with an idea that Steinhauer plays with a little, but doesn’t quite articulate fully: a library is a place where knowledge becomes a physical object. It is a rock which serves to anchor our culture into place; it gives to airy nothing a local habitation and a name. A library is a place that inspires awe at the vastness and variety of our past, and Book Tombs does its part in enhancing this sense of awe.
I spent a long time thinking about whether I really wanted to write this post. A very common misconception about old books is that you can divide them up into two categories: 1) rare and valuable books, and 2) everything else. The first category needs to be given special attention, preserved, and protected; the second category is literally trash. You often encounter this dichotomy in online discussions of old books, and even many of the professionals embrace it uncritically. To give an example, there is an apparently popular TV show about searching for antiques at yard sales, which regularly regales its viewers with a quiz titled “Dumpster or No Dumpster;” the implication being, of course, that if a certain item isn’t fit for Sotheby’s, it can safely be thrown away.
I worried that by focusing on a select few items that somebody had trashed and that turned out to be valuable, I would just be feeding this misconception. If everyone is aware that a tiny percentage of old books can be very valuable, this might get people to research their books more carefully before trashing them. However, once the appraisers predictably discover that 99% of their books have little value, they will nonetheless proceed to throw these books out. While better than nothing, this is not exactly a huge improvement of the status quo.
If my readers forgive me for stating the moral of this post in advance, I would like the post to instead help inculcate a deep agnosticism with respect to second-hand books. Yes, some items are obviously very valuable, but even for most books that seem unimpressive at first glance, there is a collector somewhere who is searching for this exact copy. Even when the book itself is common, the signature, library stamp, marginalia, or merely the level of preservation can make it very rare or unique, and even if nobody is interested in it now, somebody might covet this exact copy 50 years from now. Hence, please be nice, help preserve old books even if AbeBooks says they aren’t worth much, and don’t be the person whom future collectors will curse. Well, now that I’ve stated it, without further ado:
1.Tartars in the Library
To get an overview of the insane stuff that can be found among the trash in rich countries, there is probably no better resource than Garbage Finds. This Montreal-based blogger earns a living from the stuff he finds in his city’s trash cans, with the most interesting pieces being posted online. From the dumpsters, he regularly hauls jewellery, gold and silver items, antiques, valuable art, as well as bags of (still valid) coins and rolls of (still valid) banknotes. There doesn’t seem to be a single item out there that would be too valuable for people to throw into the garbage. And while one could use this as an excuse to sneer at Canadians, there is no particular reason to expect Americans, Germans or Japanese to behave much differently.
Our blogger regularly finds books as well, though only the most impressive items make it into his posts. Perhaps the record-holder here is a book he casually mentions in one of the posts, tucked between a spate of other antiques he found in a single dumpster, among them pre-Columbian pottery and a number of 19th century photographs and art. The author of the post is no book expert, so he guessed that the volume might be from the late 19th century as well, but his commentariat quickly set him straight and explained that the year 1610, printed on the last page, is very likely genuine.
It’s hard to be certain based on the pictures that were included into the post, but it seems that the leather-bound volume found in a Montreal dumpster includes at least two separate works which were bound together not long after being printed. The first is a historical work printed in 1610 and dedicated to the elector John George I of Saxony. Since the title page is missing, so is the title, but the last page says that the book was printed in Leipzig by the printer Henning Grosse Jr.
The second book was printed at the same location in 1611, and this time the title page is present. The book is a German adaptation of the travels of Marco Polo, or Chorographia Tartariae, as the book’s Latin name is spelled. At least one map is present, depicting the island of Rhodes, which definitely increases the value of the book. Of special interest to me, however, is the dedication immediately after the title page. Even though the work was printed in Saxony, it is dedicated to Hans Jakob Khisl and Karl Khisl, two members of a Carniolan noble family that was of paramount importance for Slovenian history.
The Khisls gave their name to Khislstein castle in the centre of Kranj, and they played a major part in the Reformation movement in Slovenia, during which time we got our first printed books. Of interest to book history, they also opened the first Slovenian paper mill at Fužine near Ljubljana in 1579. Next to the former mill, there still stands a castle which used to belong to the Khisls and now houses the Museum of Architecture and Design. I regularly pass by the castle on my strolls down the Ljubljanica River. Fortunately, the castle is too big to fit into a dumpster.
The reason why the book was dedicated to the Khisls is that the translator got to know them well during his career. Hieronymus Megiser was born in Swabia and studied at Tübingen, but he spent a big part of his life in Carniola and Carinthia, where he became well acquainted with the Slovenian language. He put this knowledge to good use and brought out the first Slovenian dictionary of all time – more precisely, a huge German-Latin-Slovenian-Italian dictionary – in 1592. Apart from Slavic cultures, he was also interested in lands further east, which led him to compile the first ever Turkish grammar in German. It’s thus no surprise that he was also the first person to translate Marco Polo into German – in the 1611 volume that ultimately ended up in a dumpster.
In the end, our blogger sold the book to a friend-of-the-blog for 30 dollars, which is a very modest sum even considering the missing pages. However, the whole point of my writing is that when looking at old books, one shouldn’t focus on their monetary worth. Hence, if the book arrived into good hands, then the founder of Garbage Finds did the right thing. I checked online and there doesn’t seem to be a copy of this edition of Marco Polo in any Slovenian library, despite the Megiser-Khisl connection. I know that our National Library looks out for interesting Slovenian books being offered by foreign booksellers, and occasionally buys them for its collection. Maybe it would be a better idea to establish relations with foreign dumpster divers and buy interesting books from them. A lot more could be acquired that way, and for much less money, too.
This particular example bothers me even more than all the others below, and the reason isn’t just the book’s historical importance or its Slovenian connection. I guess the main reason is that (ironically?) I’m kind of thinking like a librarian. Preserving old books isn’t a passive process that just happens, you need to actively make it happen by safeguarding the books from damp and insects and dirt and little children, year after year after year… When you look at a book that’s 400 years old, what you’re looking at is the effort of over a dozen generations to preserve the book against an onslaught of calamities that could easily turn a volume into dust in a matter of days. That alone should give every booklover pause when handling a truly old item. But at the end of all these centuries, some idiot had to come along and chuck the book into the trash. If you’re reading this, f**k you.
2.1812 All Over Again
There are two factors which make the following story unique: 1) the absurd importance of the salvaged books and 2) the fact that one of the first places where it was announced was Reddit. Just like electronic media have slowly supplanted printed ones as the primary means of record-keeping of our age, they are in turn being replaced by social media platforms such as Twitter and Reddit. Perhaps 22nd century historians will have special citation styles for Tweets and Facebook posts, just like we now have special styles for journal articles and conference abstracts.
Back to the story. It doesn’t say whether Max Brown often dumpster-dives for antiques, but at least on one occasion in 2014, he was distracted by a bunch of old cassettes lying inside a dumpster near his California home. Thank God for those cassettes – under them turned out to lie a bunch of old books. Brown pulled out a handful of these, but then, according to the story, it started to rain, so he packed up what he could – 15 books altogether – and headed home.
Once he was home, he took a better look at these books and found out that they were in fact really old, dating to the 18th century and even earlier. What especially caught his attention, though, was an inscription in one of the books, “From the Library of Thomas Jefferson.” I don’t know what went through his head at that moment, but my guess is that it was a feeling not unlike drunkenness. Each collector dreams of such moments, and Brown, if not perhaps a collector, found his.
He contacted antiquarian booksellers, who at first told him that the inscriptions connecting the books to Jefferson were not authentic. Not entirely convinced, Brown did some additional research of his own, tracing down the owners of Jefferson’s books after the death of their famous owner. Jefferson, an inveterate collector of books from an early age, had offered his library to the US Congress after the original Library of Congress was burned down during the War of 1812. After some wrangling and debate, Jefferson’s offer was accepted. However, after the transaction was finalized and the books were transferred in 1815, Jefferson’s collecting did not grind to a halt, so he continued to acquire new books for himself until his death in 1826.
This second library of Thomas Jefferson was dispersed after his death. Brown checked out the 19th century sales catalogues of Jefferson’s books and found the same titles that he had recovered from the dumpster. He sought a second opinion about the books’ provenance, and this time, he was told that the inscriptions were genuine. In the meantime, however, Brown had been strapped for cash, so he sold most of the books for 8,000 dollars; not a small sum, but probably only a fraction of what the books would have fetched at a major auction.
The story, as Brown and the journalists who interviewed him eventually pieced it together, is as follows: one part of Jefferson’s library ended up in the possession of the Kellogg family soon after Jefferson’s death. The ownership of these books can then ultimately be traced down to a descendant of the family by the name of Violet Cherry, who died in 1976. After that, the trail officially goes cold, but it seems that Brown also figured out who the subsequent owners were. Unfortunately, he isn’t sharing names. All he divulges is that they are themselves descendants of Ms Cherry, that they threw the books away during a remodelling in 2014, and that, extremely ironically, they are historians by profession. I hope he changes his mind and makes their names public one day. The very least these people deserve is a proper public shaming.
As the story is presented online, it still leaves a few unanswered questions. How is it possible to have such a priceless book collection at home and not know it? If I had Thomas Jefferson’s books in my collection, there’s no way my kids, or anyone else I know for that matter, would be able to not be aware of this. The descendants of Ms Cherry might have hated books, but it’s really hard to imagine that someone would prefer to throw these books away than to exchange them for a Mercedes.
Also, how many books did Brown leave behind him in the dumpster? It’s possible that the other books inside were not from Jefferson’s library (he also salvaged some old photograph albums of the Kelloggs), but it’s also possible that the story is ultimately a very tragic one. I can’t really understand how one could find such beautiful books and then be put off from rescuing them by the rain (even if one didn’t yet know whom exactly these 18th century volumes belonged to), but let’s give Brown a break here. I’m sure he has had enough moments of remorse as it is, and the next time he comes across a pile of discarded old books, he’ll know what to do.
Perhaps the saddest part is that the story was only reported by a handful of regional media. If these same books were stolen from a library or an auction house, I’m sure that the story would hit the headlines the next morning, and scores of policemen would be assigned to the case. When reporting about major book thefts, journalists often stress that the perpetrators had assaulted our common cultural heritage, and should consequently be given be given exemplary, harsh punishments. But when books of equal value are literally destroyed, nothing happens. Whoever threw these into the trash does not need to fear any sanctions.
3.What does Montaigne know?
Most stories about amazing garbage finds never become public, so the only way to come across them is by word of mouth. I can only guess at what the most valuable thing is that anyone ever found in the trash. We know about this present story only because the finder told it to his friend, a blogger, who in turn wrote a post about it, titled “What Can Be Found in the New York Trash.”
Both the blogger and his friend are Russians living in New York. One day, the friend was going from his house to the store and passed by a large open dumpster which was evidently filled with the contents of someone’s apartment, covered with a layer of snow. There was plenty of furniture and clothes, but also a lot of books, many of them quite old. The passer-by filled a box with books and other items that grabbed his attention, and once he was home, he had a better look at them.
One of the books was an edition of Montaigne’s Essays, printed in 1957 and illustrated by the “great American artist” Salvador Dali. What’s more, the book was a bibliophile edition, produced in 1000 numbered copies that were signed by the illustrator. Even though the outside of the book was scratched, presumably a consequence of having lain in the dumpster, the inside seemed to be very well preserved. When copies of the same edition reach the market, they tend to sell for 1000-2000 dollars, though this one might fetch a bit less due to its imperfect condition.
Our blogger heard about the amazing find from his friend that same day, and rushed to the dumpster to see for himself what lay inside. He took a number of photos, in which we can see the gigantic dumpster in question, about as long as two of the cars parked next to it. The blogger also took plenty of photos of the finds that he himself brought home, which included paintings, vintage clothes, different paper ephemera, as well as a number of books. He didn’t find anything as valuable as Montaigne’s Essays, but he did salvage several well-preserved turn-of-the-century children’s books. It’s unlikely that our blogger, or anyone else for that matter, managed to get to the bottom of the dumpster and inspect all of its contents. Hence, it’s hard to say whether Dali’s book was indeed the most valuable object to have lain inside.
For the first two stories I presented above, we don’t know what the dumpsters in question looked like, or how many people passed by them. In this case, however, we can see clearly from the photos that the dumpster was located at the side of a main street, that plenty of cars and people passed by, and that any pedestrian could see that the container was filled with books. Judging by the layer of snow on top of the books, it also seems that they were left standing inside for quite some time. If a few random people throw valuable books into the trash, this can be shrugged off as an aberration, but when hundreds of passers-by do nothing about it, then that is worrisome. If it weren’t for two Russian immigrants, nothing would remain of the cultural heritage packed within this NY dumpster.
4.Accio Rare Book!
The previous three stories suggest that if a book is old(ish), it might also be valuable. This is not a necessary condition, though, and dumpsters can also yield valuable books of a more recent date. In this last story, a book that would at first glance appear to be the most common item in the world turned out to be as rare and as precious as very few other bibliophile gems. The story also illustrates that it’s not just dumpsters in front of mansions that one should be attentive to.
The book in question is a first edition of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, which came out in 1997 in a tiny print run of 500 copies, around 300 of which were bought up by libraries. Given what a success Harry Potter became afterwards, this is probably the most sought-after modern first edition of all, with even tattered library copies fetching significant sums. It’s great that libraries support fledgling young authors by buying up their books, but it would be even better if these books weren’t ultimately trashed.
This one was thrown out, along with a few other (less rare) Harry Potter first editions, by a school in Buckinghamshire, which unfortunately remains unnamed, in 2008. The occasion for the trashing was an incoming visit by Ofsted, the school-inspection body of the UK Department of Education. Apparently, the school wanted its library to look pristine for the inspection, and plenty of other items had found themselves in the dumpster. If Ofsted has a policy that libraries aren’t allowed to carry rare and valuable books, then I hope the inspectors never find their way to Oxbridge colleges…
The Harry Potter books were taken by a then-teacher at the school, who apparently had to fish them out of the dumpster. Sometimes libraries will at least offer these sort of discarded books to employees before trashing them, but apparently this institution has an uncompromising policy of destruction. As it happens, the teacher brought all of these books home, but at first didn’t consider that they might have any particular value – she simply wanted to have them around for her children and grandchildren to read.
About eight years later, her son noticed that the books, especially the first edition of Philosopher’s Stone, might indeed be valuable. He offered them around to antiquarian sellers, who offered to buy the books on the spot for several thousand pounds, but he figured that the books’ real value might indeed be much higher, and resisted the temptation. Finally, he contacted the Hansons’ Auctioneers auction house, where Philosopher’s Stone went up for auction in 2020 and reached the sum of £33,000, despite being an ex-library copy with significant damage to the spine.
The saddest part of this particular story is probably that when the unnamed teacher was interviewed about her finds, she sounded almost apologetic for having rescued the books from the trash. She explained to the journalist that “it just seemed awful to throw them away” and that taking them home for her grandchildren was “better than seeing them go to waste.” Perhaps the biggest problem, when it comes to books in the trash, is that people are so squeamish about dumpster diving. Even the few who salvage books from trash bags often later feel the need to ask forgiveness for their good deeds.
When Rebecca Rego Barry wrote her Rare Books Uncovered: True Stories of Fantastic Finds in Unlikely Places, she included 52 stories into the volume, gathered from fellow collectors and book dealers whom she had gotten to know over the years. Of all these stories, however, only one involves a book that was literally found in the trash. Even then, the book in question, a rare 1920s driving manual for New Yorkers, is not quite as “fantastic” as many of the other highlighted finds.
I was rather surprised by this omission, and I would like to use the opportunity here to publicly invite Ms Barry to focus a future volume entirely on books found and rescued from the trash. I’m certain that there are many stories similar to the four above that haven’t yet been published anywhere, in print or online. Admittedly, most antiquarian dealers are probably too haughty to sift through the trash themselves, but I’m sure each of them has now and then acquired a rare book that, according to the seller, had come from a dumpster. If such a collection of stories helped motivate some of its readers to take up dumpster diving, then that would be the biggest service to book collecting I can think of.
At the end of all this, the reader might ask whether I also have any similar stories of dumpster finds of my own. I definitely do, and at least one of them can compete with the four I have selected for the present post. However, I’ll probably use these stories for blog posts of their own – and I can’t post everything at once. Stay tuned!
When the Iron Curtain came down in 1989 and communist regimes started falling all over Eastern Europe, one of the targets of people’s anger at communism were books and libraries. The fate of books in post-communist Europe is a large topic and definitely deserves more than one blog post, so in this one I’ll focus on East Germany. For now, let’s just say that communist-era books had it rough pretty much everywhere after the regimes that printed them went down.
1. The Land of Reading
Publishing in the German Democratic Republic (GDR) was a combination of high intellectual standards, government meddling, and technological limitations. As a result of shortages, it is not uncommon to see relatively prestigious books printed on surprisingly low-quality paper, and in some cases the industry resorted to wartime solutions for decades after 1945. An example is a cheap type of paper that was common in Germany during WWII but remained in use in the GDR at least until the 1970s – one side of the paper would yellow much more quickly than the other, so that when you read these books today, one pair of pages is always white and the next pair yellow, and so on, which is quite a strain on the eyes.
Unsurprisingly, books were also a major channel for propagating official ideology. Apart from highly technical publications, most books had a Marxist tint; however, once the editors had paid their lip service to Marxism in the introduction, the remainder of the text was usually of high quality. I recently came across an essay by the New Yorker columnist Richard Brody in which he discusses the lure of book collecting. One of the bibliophile mementoes he singled out was “from my 1983 visit to East Berlin, where I changed more money than was required for entry in order to purchase several orange clothbound Leipzig Teubner classical editions.” He is referring to the GDR’s clever way to acquire foreign currency: every visitor would have to exchange a minimum amount of money into GDR Marks. To spend this money, two types of commodities were a popular choice among Westerners: cameras and books, especially editions of classics, brought out by publishing houses like Teubner and Reclam.
These same books were of course also much-read in their land of origin. In a country where travel was limited and many luxuries expensive, books served both as a popular pastime and as a substitute for visiting foreign lands in person. The state did its part and supported reading by instituting a very wide net of libraries which were free for everyone. At the same time, books were often the first medium through which sensitive topics like homosexuality, abortion, or envy of the Western lifestyle, were breached and discussed in public. Because the authorities sometimes did an about-face and banned a controversial book after it had already been published, it was common for such books to be grabbed up immediately after release, just in case. A commonly used phrase was that the GDR is a “Leseland”, a “land of reading.”
2. The Cemetery of Unwanted Books
Fast forward to 1993, when the New York Times published a long article about East German literature’s status within the unified country, titled “A Nation of Readers Dumps its Writers.” This summarizes well the radical change that occurred as soon as the Berlin Wall came down. After forty years of being denied bananas, jeans and Volkswagens, East Germans craved for everything Western and tried to shed everything that smacked of communism. Not just political or ideological books, but pretty much the entire domestic production suddenly found itself unsellable. Entire print runs were abandoned by publishers before they had even been sent out to bookstores. In his novel Himmelfarb, which takes place in the early nineties, Michael Krüger’s protagonist is a grumpy old professor who lives on the outskirts of Munich. He comments as he browses through a newly acquired copy of the selected works of Alexander Humboldt:
“[a] beautiful, intelligently edited book, sent to me by the publisher, as the eastern states, which had apparently banned reading after unification with the land of plenty, were either selling it below price or sending it to the paper mill, and in Leipzig of all places.”
Leipzig had been the first major centre of German publishing, and in 1991, it made headlines with another first – probably the world’s first book dump. Initially, unwanted books from the main East German warehouse for literature were sent to paper mills, and when the latter reached capacity, the books were burned as fuel in power stations. At last, whatever remained was transported to a waste deposit site at the town of Espenhain, where on May 1, 1991, a group of students uncovered around 500 tons (!) of books and other printed material deposited under a layer of construction and municipal waste. Among the few organizations to raise their voice in protest was the Union of German Writers, in whose name the poet Dieter Mucke reminded the German public of Heine’s dictum, “where they burn books, they will eventually burn people too.”
Altogether, it is estimated that about three million new books were sent directly to the scrap heaps immediately after reunification, which alone would make this one of the largest single episodes of book destruction in world history. Even more was to come during the 1990s, when the network of public libraries, which had been maintained by the East German state, was mostly dismantled. About 8000 libraries, or more than half of the total, were closed, and most of their books were sent to the dump. It is estimated that around 80 million (!!) books were destroyed in the process. This is such a huge number that I find it hard to really wrap my head around it. Perhaps it’s easier to imagine it as roughly 1600 km of books, enough to fill up a bookshelf stretching from Germany’s southern border to the North Sea – and back again. I have never come across such a huge number in any other episode of book destruction that I ever read of.
3. The Book Pastor
Fortunately, at least a few of these books survived. Among their saviours, pride of place goes to the pastor Martin Weskott from the West German village of Katlenburg, just next to the former border between the two Germanies. Weskott’s life changed in 1991 when a friend showed him a picture in a local newspaper, depicting the “book cemetery” at Plottendorf in Saxony. Weskott was amazed that this could be going on in a civilized country, and since it wasn’t clear from the picture what kind of books were being dumped, he drove down to Saxony with two of his friends to see more precisely what was going on.
Having arrived to Plottendorf, the three friends found a hole in the wire fence and climbed inside the dump. They quickly found themselves standing on enough reading material for several lifetimes. Among the titles dumped, there were the staples of Western culture: world classics such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, German ones such as Heinrich Mann and Stefan Heym, books by the Latin American revolutionary Eduardo Galeano were lying alongside the King of Prussia Frederick II, the Nobel Prize winner Jaroslaw Seifert, several of the Reclam classics editions, as well as children’s books, maps and books on history and architecture.
Weskott’s next step was to rent out a truck, make a number of return trips to the dump and transport as many of the books as he could back to his parish. He was lucky to have ample space at the parish to store them all, and soon afterwards he founded the Katlenburg Bücherburg, a non-profit where visitors could browse through his rescued books and take them home in exchange for a contribution to charity. After one year, Weskott estimated that he had already saved about 80,000 books, and he had made it a habit to travel down the East German countryside once a month, poking around for discarded and unwanted books.
Eventually, Weskott became known as the Book Pastor, a title which he has carried to the present day. In the nineties, the Bücherburg became a site of literary evenings, pointedly titled “The Garbage Writers are Reading,” where East German writers would present their work to a both cis- and transmural audience. As the destruction of GDR heritage subsided during the nineties, Weskott expanded his focus. He now also gathers Western books, as well as books that pre-and postdate the German division, and foreign books. Fortunately, he doesn’t have to climb around scrap heaps any longer, as most of the books now come directly from libraries, from individuals cleaning their attics, and from publishers’ unsold stock. After almost 30 years and several hundred book-gathering trips, the Bücherburg remains a must-visit for German-speaking bibliomaniacs.
4. A Library in Banana Boxes
Another approach to saving East German printed heritage was taken by Peter Sodann, a politician and actor who became famous for his role in the TV-series Tatort. Like Weskott, Sodann is also an unlikely candidate to fight for preserving the communist past. He spent time in GDR jails himself for counterrevolutionary behaviour, after having staged an irreverent play as a student. Nonetheless, Sodann had been an avid reader his entire life, and in the beginning of the nineties, he had a formative experience similar to that of Weskott. The library in Halle had dumped a huge amount of GDR-produced books soon after reunification, among them Goethe, Thomas Mann and Max Frisch. By the time Sodann heard of this, it was too late to save the books, but he pledged to save others which were about to be disposed of, and to bring them together into a library of his own.
Sodann began a drive to gather East German books, and with the help of around 250 donors, among them libraries, publishers and individuals, he ended up amassing more than half a million books. With intended irony, these were first stored in banana boxes: before 1989, bananas were a rare luxury item. When Western visitors are guided around the library by Sodann today, however, he likes to tease them that by storing Eastern literature in Western cardboard boxes, he is combining the best of both worlds.
It took a long time to find a space to properly house and present the books, since Sodann could offer a library but no money. During two decades of wandering, he had to sell his parents’ home to finance storage costs, part of the book collection became a victim of arson, and the others were endangered by the damp conditions in which they were often stored. Finally, Sodann’s pleas were heard by the mayor of the small town of Stauchitz in Saxony, and in 2011 they struck a deal to open one of the largest private libraries in Europe to the public.
In 2012, the Peter-Sodann-Library was officially opened inside a local mansion. The library includes a small movie theatre and a second-hand store, where duplicates are sold, while still more books are being stored in several warehouses around the country. There is also a nearby hotel which caters to visitors, and a number of buses continue bringing them to Stauchitz. Sodann likes to brag about requests he gets for books: libraries looking for missing copies, academics who need specific editions, publishers who don’t have some of their own books in their archive.
While there are several museums of communism scattered around Eastern Europe, this is the only specialized library I am aware of, and we definitely need more of them. The main excuse why nobody wanted to host Sodann was that all the GDR books were already in the national library in Leipzig, and thus his library was unnecessary. However, there is a difference between a national library and the kind of institution Sodann is building. A national library is a repository of texts, and the texts aren’t really meant to be accessed too often. In Stauchnitz, on the other hand, visitors can roam around the stacks, leaf through the books at will, and buy a few for themselves on the way out. It’s closer to a museum, or even a theme park, and much better equipped to give visitors a wholesome view of literature and culture in the former GDR.
In other Eastern European countries, the downfall of communism was accompanied by public bonfires of books, the torching of entire libraries, or official orders to purge the stacks. By contrast, the East German libricide was both quiet and spontaneous, and left very few traces in the national memory compared to the book burnings of half a century earlier. Nonetheless, it was a major event that deserves a mention in every history of the reunification. Germans tend to be good at learning from their own history; I hope they learn something from this too.
I didn’t expect I would like The Book Thieves so much. I can’t resist books about books, especially if they’re about World War II, but most of the time they present their content in a very dry, academic way (something that I hope my blog is avoiding). By contrast, Rydell blends together history, travelogue, interview and pure bibliophilia into a mixture that keeps you hooked until the end. However, from the beginning, he is faced with a major problem. We are used to thinking of Nazis as destroyers of books, starting with the bonfires of 1933 and culminating in the destruction of several major European libraries, such as the one in Louvain and most of the great libraries of Warsaw. If instead of this one talks about how Nazis stole books for their own collections, wouldn’t that improve the image that most of us already have of them, and appear as a sort of vindication?
Rydell’s answer to this is somewhat disingenuous. Destroying books might be bad, he contends, but using them against their writers and owners is even worse. Of course, he has a point here. In many cases when the Nazis stole books from groups they hated, such as Jews, Slavs and freemasons, the purpose was to create special research libraries; foremost among these was the string of organizations led by chief Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg, such as the Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg (Reichsleiter Rosenberg Taskforce) and the Hohe Schule der NSDAP (Advanced School of the NSDAP). Such institutions would serve as an ideological weapon, allowing Germans to know their enemy in order to fight him all the more efficiently. Especially in the case of Jews, these libraries would also serve as a sort of retroactive justification of the Holocaust. After all the Jews would be gone, their books would continue to serve as evidence to future generations of the need for exterminating Jewry, or so at least the Nazis thought. Indeed, when ransacking libraries in occupied countries, a central preoccupation was finding “evidence” for anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. For example, when a special commissioner was sent to the library of the masonic lodge in Amsterdam, he was instructed to pay special attention to any documents indicating Jewish influence on the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and on the creation of the British secret service, events that Nazi ideologues considered part of the Jewish plot for world domination.
At the same time, isn’t gathering books in order to refute them what most intellectuals do, most of the time? If you want to understand a topic, you need to familiarize yourself with all the viewpoints on it, including the ones you oppose. I’m reminded of Umberto Eco who commented that reading and collecting books which contain the truth is boring, the interesting books are the ones which are full of falsehoods… It wouldn’t harm Rydell’s narrative to simply admit that while burning books is even worse, stealing them is still bad, especially if you kill their owners in the process. Most of the books stolen by the Nazis weren’t really connected with ideology, they were just regular book collections which were taken from owners as the latter were sent to the camps. These books were then sold or turned over to local libraries, where a number of them still are, and in many cases the profits were specifically earmarked to fund the Holocaust. The number of books collected in this way was even advertised publicly as a measure of the Nazis’ respect for popular education, as described in another book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries by Götz Aly.
The project of returning these books is probably the most interesting of all the stories Rydell presents, and I’m really impressed by the effort German libraries have invested in identifying stolen books, photographing them and setting up databases with thousands of indexed items. (Searching for a stolen book yourself? You can check the database here.) Of all the stories presented, this one is also the most uplifting, as we encounter Holocaust survivors and their descendants around the world who are improbably reunited with their books after many decades of separation.
The other stories are gradually less cheerful. Many of the trails of lost libraries lead to Russia, and most of these trails reach a dead end. During and after the war, the Red Army confiscated millions of books which were considered compensation for books destroyed or looted by the Nazis after their invasion of the USSR. I don’t understand this at all: why would they want to fill Soviet libraries with books in German, many of which were highly foreign to the Soviet worldview, if not literally Nazi? Apparently, most local librarians didn’t understand it either. The majority of these books ended up rotting in huge warehouses or were discarded and pulped after it turned out that nobody in town was interested in reading German folk songs or guides to Frankfurt. Even when the books acquired were in Russian, they didn’t necessarily fare any better. After the Turgenev library of Paris, founded and run by Russian émigrés, was removed by the Nazis in 1940, it eventually found itself in the USSR after the war. Even though most of the books were in Russian and politically unproblematic, they were put into storage at a military base where they were eventually almost all burned for heating. Many others of these so-called “trophy” books are still scattered around the former Soviet Union, but locating them is difficult and their return is unlikely.
As it goes on, the book becomes increasingly depressing, since it is hard to discuss the topic of books separate from the wider context of the Holocaust. Of the two major Jewish libraries in Rome, one was mostly returned after the war, while the other one disappeared without a trace. So did most of its readers, who were rounded up in 1943 and sent to the camps after having been promised freedom in exchange for 50 kilograms of gold, which they duly gathered and handed over. While the stolen books from Rome at least had somewhere to return to after the war, this wasn’t the case with the Jewish community in Vilnius. Survivors coming back to the newly-Lithuanian town would discover that the Soviet occupiers had little use for Yiddish books, and intended to pulp even the small number of books that had survived until 1944. In any case, the number of surviving Jews was very low and most of them made off to other countries as soon as they could. As a result, the remainders of the pre-war Jewish libraries of Vilnius are now mostly located abroad.
Lastly comes the most depressing of these stories, from Salonika in Greece, where Nazis and Greeks together obliterated almost every trace of Jewish presence, down to bulldozing the cemetery. Nowadays it takes an archaeologist to recognize traces of what used to be one of the largest Jewish communities in the world just a century ago. Here, Rydell wanders somewhat off topic, as only a small part of the chapter is actually spent discussing books, but I can’t blame him since Salonika is probably the least-known of all the Jewish pre-war cultural centres, and deserves more publicity.
This still leaves out several countries which Rydell does not mention at all, among them Yugoslavia. Bosnia in particular had a notable Jewish community, and it would be interesting to know what happened to their books and where they ended up. I plan to get around to this on the blog, once I’ve collected enough material. If the review concludes with wishing that the book had been longer, this is very faint criticism indeed.
At the end of the day, the main reason why I liked The Book Thieves so much is that Rydell displays a genuine love of old books. He doesn’t care just for incunables and rare collectors’ objects, but also run-of-the-mill books, 19th century books on law and economics and textbooks which, apart from the fact that they were stolen from their owners, are otherwise completely unremarkable. On occasion this love even appears hopelessly naive. At the same time that German public libraries are restituting thousands of pre-WWII books to their owners, many millions of similar books are being weeded and discarded by libraries all over Europe, in some cases cut apart in order to be digitized and the originals discarded, and in other cases just sent to the paper mills directly, on account of their “outdatedness” and libraries’ “lack of space”. I was sometimes surprised while reading The Book Thieves that so many of these books had survived on the shelves long enough to await the beginning of the restitution process.
Of course, even if Rydell is aware of these modern book purges, he can’t afford to discuss them in the book, or else it would appear that Nazi librarians were actually better than their modern-day counterparts. Yet despite this noble lie, I have some hope that by pretending society already cares about old books, The Book Thieves might actually get people to care about them more. The main lesson of these three hundred pages is that books can be valuable even if their market price isn’t very high, what makes them valuable is the people and places they used to belong to, and the long path they have travelled to reach the present day. Such a sentiment is very close to the philosophy behind this blog.
Aly, Götz. “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State.” New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007.
Rydell, Anders. “The Book Thieves: The Nazi Looting of Europe’s Libraries and the Race to Return a Literary Inheritance.” New York: Penguin Books, 2015.