DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Imagine a room in war-ravaged Syria lined with bookshelves and filled with patrons reading books in Arabic and English, everything from poetry to American pop psychology. Now picture that, outside that library, city streets are reduced to rubble and bombs are a constant threat. That's the real-life scene journalist Delphine Minoui chronicles in her new book called "The Book Collectors." Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has this review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Books have always gone to war, serving as comfort and distraction. And, oftentimes, the most unexpected books have struck a chord in wartime. For instance, who would have guessed that "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn," Betty Smith's 1943 semiautobiographical novel, would become one of the most popular books among servicemen in World War II, who received it as part of a massive distribution program that put over 122 million books into the hands of American troops?
The Syrian resistance fighters whom reporter Delphine Minoui began interviewing in 2015 surprisingly favored self-help literature. Their counterpart to "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" is Stephen Covey's bestselling pop-psych bible, "The Seven Habits Of Highly Effective People." This book means so much to us, one young fighter tells Minoui - it's our compass in a way.
Minoui understands that Covey's book affirms the power of the individual, something these young men - raised under the repressive regime of Bashar al Assad - are fighting for. The suburb of Damascus these men are from, a town called Daraya, was a site of peaceful protests during the Arab Spring uprising of 2011. Beginning in 2012, forces of the Assad regime laid siege to the town, pummeling it with barrel bombs and sarin gas attacks, cutting off water, electricity and humanitarian aid - in short, inflicting the kind of determined total erasure of a city, called urbicide.
Minoui, a Middle East correspondent for Le Figaro who lives in Istanbul, was on her computer one night in 2015, scrolling through the Facebook site Humans of Syria when she was stopped by a black-and-white photo. The caption read, the secret library of Daraya. In the photo, two young men in sweatshirts stand in a room lined with bookcases packed tight. Her curiosity aroused, Minoui worked her contacts via Skype and WhatsApp to track down the photographer, a young man named Ahmad Muaddamani, one of the co-founders of the secret library. He tells her an incredible story that Minoui, in turn, would spend years fleshing out. The result is a slim, vivid account called "The Book Collectors."
Minoui, whose writing has been translated from the French by Lara Vergnaud, is an unadorned stylist. Occasionally, though, she comes up with a lyrical phrase that stops a reader short, such as when she refers to the photo that first caught her attention as depicting a fragile parenthesis in the midst of war. The story behind that photo, as she'll learn, is even more arresting. In late 2013 Ahmad, then in his early 20s and a committed resistance fighter, was called upon by his friends to help excavate the ruins of a house filled with books. Ahmad wasn't even a reader. The books he'd been assigned in school were propaganda. But when he picked up one of the rescued books and started reading, Ahmad said he felt, the same sensation of freedom I felt at my first protest.
Ahmad and his comrades salvaged 6,000 books in one week. A month later, bulked out by other scavenging missions, this disparate collection of literature, theology, science and, yes, self-help stood at 15,000. To preserve their find, the men carved out a library in the basement of an abandoned building. They built wooden shelves and catalogued the books. The library quickly became a gathering place, a mini-university in a city where almost all the professors had either been exiled, jailed or killed. In this refuge, Minoui says, people could experience the sensation of a page opening to the world when every door is locked.
"The Book Collectors" is itself a charged addition to the library of literary survival tales involving not only the preservation of books but the rescuing of the ideas they contain. I'm thinking of everything from Thomas Cahill's "How The Irish Saved Civilization," about the remote libraries of monks in the so-called Dark Ages, to Azar Nafisi's "Reading Lolita In Tehran," to which Minoui's story is a kind of all-male companion piece. In "The Book Collectors," unlike these earlier accounts, the Internet plays a key role in the rescue work and not only by first alerting Minoui to the existence of the secret library. Some of the resistance fighters become such avid readers that they download still more books on their cell phones, augmenting the holdings of the library.
Anyone who knows the history of current events in Syria won't be surprised to learn that the secret library doesn't survive, nor do all of those young men. The story of the secret library, however, is preserved here when so much else in Daraya has turned to dust.
DAVIES: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Book Collectors" by Delphine Minoui.
On tomorrow's show, we'll talk about the Chicago 7 trial with Jon Wiener. Seven - initially eight - activists against the war in Vietnam were accused of conspiring to riot in Chicago when the 1968 Democratic National Convention was underway. Wiener's book has been reprinted to coincide with Aaron Sorkin's film about the trial. I hope you can join us.
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DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering help today from Diana Martinez and Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavey Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.
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