We are living in the century of fear

‘That peculiar mixture of excitement and fear, of melancholy and joy, of boredom and wonder, which I felt as a child standing beside the sea, is strangely analogous to the feeling I get on walking into a good library. Both offer the potential of liberal travel, of surprising encounters, of aimlessness and the danger of drowning, the temptation of being lost as well as the fear of being lost. This is why the banning of books, and the silencing or dismissing of certain voices – as happened only recently in Frankfurt, for example, when an award ceremony celebrating the Palestinian novelist Adania Shibli was cancelled on the grounds of the author’s nationality – offends in us an essential human need and freedom.

‘Our age fears books. It is worried about ungovernable expression. It often mistakes the author for the authority on her work, when only the work is the true authority on itself. Anyone who has written an honest line knows this. Added to this is that other, much older fear, which power everywhere has often felt towards books: that they risk disrupting the official narrative, make those whom we have decided are fundamentally different from ourselves vivid, present and equal.

‘This is why the violence of war, of death, occupation and displacement, is invested in what sort of libraries we end up with. War wants to extend its murderous tentacles into our bookshelves: the public and private ones, the physical and those we carry within us.’

— Hisham Matar, ‘“We are living in the century of fear”: Hisham Matar on why we need books


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