Return to Articles / Essays

Books As Symbols

Published in Canadian Notes and Queries, Number 97.

In his book the Library At Night , Alberto Manguel mentions that there was a library in Auschwitz – for children. It contained just eight books. It makes me shudder with both disgust and disbelief to even imagine such a thing; disgust at the shameless behaviour of people who could make such a mockery of everything human by such a juxtaposition. Books, the prime symbol, at least to me, of what civilization means, became in that human slaughterhouse a perfect symbol of the worst conceivable denial of our common humanity. In the most despicable aberration that the most evil minds had yet conjured, books were used to help hide the evidence of a mass insanity that rejected everything truly human.

This forces us to contemplate books from a somewhat different viewpoint – as symbols. Since book collectors do, and always have, viewed books as such anyway, it's second nature for someone like me to recognize the significance of that anecdote. I have come to understand over many years that a book, aside from its contents and the pleasure and learning we gain from them, has many other facets worthy of study: the printing, the binding, the entire design – all are now specialized areas of study.

I have a small book with the coated paper boards found on the books of many European books of that period. I bought it thirty years ago from an acquaintance. I can't really remember where he told me he got it, I think it was from someone, maybe his father, who had served in Europe during the war and had rescued it. It lacks the whole spine, which makes it near valueless, as does the fact that its title page reveals it to be an (outdated) guide to Czechoslovakia in German.

It turns out its value lies elsewhere. A large rubber-stamped identification at the top of the title page changes a worthless, badly defective, out-of-date grammar guide into a cultural artifact of immense and sombre significance. The rubberstamp on the title says, in that ponderous Gothic script the Germans so love, “Häftling bücherei. – K.L. Buchenwald.” Without any German I knew what it meant in English: Buchenwald – Prisoner's Library . To compound the indignity, in the rear I found a pencilled list noting withdrawal dates. The last had occurred on July 7, 1942.

A book from the prisoner's library in Buchenwald. A library in Buchenwald – after Auschwitz, one of the twentieth century's most emotionally laden names, especially for those who despair of humanity and its sins, its gross deeds. People – I'm one of them – who believe God does not exist often believe – and I am one of these as well – that the purpose of all life is to become God. What Shaw called, appropriately, “the Life Force,” is what impels us forward and upward, furnishes meaning. It's to our collective sense of horror that so much of our human activity denies and degrades that view. The people who perpetrate such evil deeds are the deluded, dangerous enemies. The worst are the upholders of the “isms”: the fascists, Nazis, communists, true believers, who infested the twentieth century.

Every conceivable humiliation and suffering was inflicted, daily, on the prisoners: starvation, systematic sadism, murder (not murder committed in passion but the systematic murder of the accountant, the drones). Their elimination fulfilled a “plan” in the same way that we systematically process animals for food, though the need for food at least provides some justification for the latter.

All the horrors that the perpetrators were able to accept as normal, even logical, because they were able to convince themselves that their prisoners weren't human. The almost unbearable irony of this result for them, the persecutors, is that in the act of deciding that their victims weren't human, they themselves ceded their humanity. Oh, the horror!

This wasn't the first time I experienced the creepy but strangely compelling feeling of contemplating a symbol of some much deeper human meaning, but it was the most horrific one I've ever encountered.

I had a customer waiting for that book, a man who collected holocaust material, artifacts, paper. A man who'd lost most of his family in the maw of that horror. He kept calling about it. I decided on my price and then found I couldn't bring myself to offer it to him. He called for a year or so then gave up. By then I knew I couldn't bring myself to profit from such things. I still have it. It will be donated when I die, maybe to Israel, maybe to one of the Holocaust museums where future generations can look on it and be reminded of the depths of insanity the human race once lowered itself to. I show it sometimes, and when I do I hand it to people without letting them know what it is, so they can discover for themselves.

A few people have reacted, the way my partner Debbie did when I first handed it to her. “There is something evil there,” she said, shuddering, without knowing what she was holding. Can an object's essence emanate evil? You tell me. I only know what I saw.

In the early days, when we were working to establish our Toronto book fairs internationally we would, in our press releases to the media, attempt to attract interest by sending highlights of what participating dealers would be offering for sale. It worked pretty well, gaining us much interest and publicity. But I don't recall anything attracting as much attention as a book I had on offer from the library of Hermann Goering that contained his bookplate, which was as elaborate and vulgar as his ludicrous uniforms.

The book was some obscure, probably talentless, German poet's offering to culture. He had sent it, obsequiously inscribed, to Goering, no doubt to curry favour. I had purchased it for an extremely modest price from one of the lists of Laurie Deval, a very good English dealer. He issued fascinating and ludicrously cheap book lists, which I bought from often. I think the Goering book cost around £2. When a Toronto newspaper announced that I would be offering it at the fair I was deluged with phone calls from people aggressively trying to buy it. We had a fixed rule that any item advertised as available had to be so when the doors opened on the first day of the fair. At precisely 5 p.m. that day about eight people literally ran to my booth. True to our rules the first to arrive got it. The name on his cheque, which he wrote with a trembling hand, suggested strongly that he was Jewish. I found the whole episode disturbing.

Curiously, some thirty years later an historian wrote me from a California University telling me he had the book, had purchased it as a reference point for his specialty in modern German history. He had found my sales receipt and wondered what I could tell him of the book's provenance. I was happy to do that, but as Laurie Deval was by then dead, his retracing of the book's peregrinations soon came to an abrupt halt.

Like many Nazis, Goering believed himself a man of culture and attempted to prove this by stealing half the art in the countries the Nazis conquered, much of it confiscated from its Jewish owners who had, of course, little need for it in the camps. I am not of the school that believes that all the Nazi leaders were intrinsically evil like Hitler and his core of truly subhuman thugs. Later, when the camps were discovered, we saw in newsreels and documentaries the full horror, which we were allowed to observe in the safety of darkened theatres or our homes, sure in our creepy fascination that we ourselves could never become part of such horrendous behaviour. I find this view repugnant in that it allows us to feel superior, allows us to indulge our fascination in the certainty of the impossibility that we could ever similarly relinquish our humanity as they did.

I am of the school that believes – as I believe history teaches us – that those pathetic, seemingly uncomprehending, insignificant-looking men in the docks at Nuremberg weren't much different from the rest of us. Their relinquishing of their humanity was the direct consequence of relinquishing their moral imagination.

It was in observing them that Hannah Arendt came up with her famous phrase about the banality of evil, her near perfect description of what humanity might expect regularly and forever when it chooses to cede its intelligence and morality to the seduction and the emotional attraction of mass hysteria.

Unfortunately, there have been plenty of examples of mass dementia since, from Cambodia and Rwanda through to our current struggle with the irrational results of a medieval worldview, such as that held by ISIS and their ilk, which we can no longer avoid confronting. We cannot afford to allow such demented maniacs to again threaten our ever-shrinking world. We need to understand the symbols.

-David Mason

Quick Search

News & Announcements

eList #52 - Now Online NEW May 2018 
Click above for details.

Science: A Miscellany, Catalogue 94
Click above for details.

David Mason reflects on 50 years in the book business. 
Published in CNQ 100. Click above to read.

60 Items Relating to Medicine  
Click above for details.

The Pope's Bookbinder available. 
David Mason's memoir of the book business in Toronto can be purchased here.