February 22 to 28 is Freedom to Read week in Canada. Not so in Mosul, in Northern Iraq, where ISIS has just bombed the Mosul Public Library, destroying a reported 10,000 books and 700 rare manuscripts. The attack, which took place on Feb. 22, involved the use of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). Because of the difficulty of getting reliable news out of Iraq, sources differ as to the extent of the damage, the number of volumes involved, whether some books have been “booknapped” by ISIS and squirrelled away somewhere, or whether all have been destroyed. What is clear is that ever since ISIS gained control of Mosul in 2014, it has undertaken a campaign of cultural “cleansing” that involves destruction and ransacking of museums, libraries, universities and historic sites. Unverified photographs show piles of books being burned in public squares. Churches and historic sites of the Christian minority in Mosul have been particularly targeted and most of the Christians of the city have now fled.
Why mourn the loss of books, when so many innocent lives have been snuffed out in this conflict? I don’t mean to minimize that tragedy in any way or to rank the loss of a book as higher than the loss of a human life. But when you burn, say, a rare manuscript, a unique cultural item, even if copies or photographs exist, no mere facsimile will make up for the loss of the original. That is a loss that will be felt by every succeeding generation.