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Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Book Review: The Book Collectors: A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War by Delphine Minoui, translated by Lara Vergnaud

I went into this just expecting a great book about books (which of us book nuts doesn't love those) but I was surprised, at the height of the COVID-19 outbreak (I read this in late March) to find so many parallels to what we were all going through.

This book takes place in Syria, in a rebel town that has been completely cut off from the outside world. A group of young men went house to house and collected books, expecting hundreds but finding thousands, and created a library. Even though their original owners were gone, they meticulously noted who the owner was in the front of every book in the hopes that one day they could be reunited. So in a desolate world where no one ventured out except in search of food, and people were isolated, fearing the news, hating their president, and afraid for their lives every day, books provided comfort and solace. The main leader of this library didn't read at all before the war. But books found him when he needed them.

Ms. Minoui is also in the story because how she found these men and how she communicated with them is part of the story as well. In a feat of super-modern journalism, she mostly talked to them over Whatsapp and occasionally text and Facebook Messenger. She never met them until the very end, and most of her communication and research was, by necessity, very remote. That's another parallel with the virus outbreak--she wasn't able to meet with them and had to do everything from a great distance.

So while this book might not seem pertinent, I promise it really is. It's a brief, compelling, important story about the power of books in tumultuous times.

This book is published by Farrar Straus and Giroux, a division of Macmillan, my employer.

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