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Books in brief

Saving manuscripts; growing up gay; Postal Service history

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts

By Joshua Hammer, Simon & Schuster, 288 pp., $26

Toward the end of their occupation of northern Mali, on the run from African and European military forces, fighters from Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb made a massive bonfire of more than 4,000 ancient manuscripts held in the government library in Sankoré. Among the books they burned in 2013 were “fourteenth- and fifteenth-century works of physics, chemistry, and mathematics, their fragile pages covered with algebraic formulas, charts of the heavens, and molecular diagrams.” The conflagration was “an act of nihilistic vindictiveness,” writes Joshua Hammer, but it could have been so much worse. In a gripping, ultimately moving new book, veteran journalist Hammer tells the story of Abdel Kader Haidara, a heroic librarian who smuggled nearly 400,000 such manuscripts to safety when his native Timbuktu was occupied by violent fundamentalists.

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The son of a book collector, Haidara inherited his father’s archive when he was just a teenager. Initially a reluctant recruit, he grew to love the manuscripts while salvaging them from ancient hiding places, gathering them for a national collection. Later, under siege, he arranged for their transport by river and through desert to safety in Bamako, the capital. Illuminated and often gilded, these volumes were (and are) both beautiful and profound. “Sinuously intertwined and endlessly repeating arabesques — leaves, vines, palmettes, and flowers — strikingly reminiscent of the mosaics at the Great Mosque of Damascus and the Alhambra Palace in Granada, conveyed the bounty and infiniteness of God’s universe,” Hammer writes. As a curator, Haidara “was particularly interested in manuscripts that contradicted Western stereotypes of Islam as a religion of intolerance.” History depends on whose stories get told and which books survive; in Timbuktu, thanks to Haidara and his associates, inquiry, humanity, and courage live on in the libraries.

Boy Erased

By Garrard Conley, Riverhead, 352 pp., $27

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Growing up in a conservative Christian environment, the son of an aspiring preacher, Garrard Conley was a loving son, good student, hard worker at his father’s car dealership, and a thoughtful boyfriend (even as he knew his sexual desires lay elsewhere). Hopeful if frightened as he set off for college, he faced a series of disasters. When his parents learned the secret of his sexuality, they enrolled Conley in a gay-conversion program, which he describes as an excruciating blend of manipulation and tedium, as if the Salem Witch Trials took place in a strip mall, under flickering fluorescent lights: “Lunch. Moral Inventory. Short break.”

The “moral inventory,” a list of sins and failures, seems to Conley to be a bottomless well: “being secretly gay your whole life, averting your eyes every time you saw a handsome man, praying on your knees every time a sexual thought entered your mind or every time you’d acted even remotely feminine — this gave you an embarrassment of sins for which you constantly felt the need to apologize, repent, beg forgiveness.” That he is more sinned against than sinning doesn’t lessen the poignancy of this honest, often painful memoir; Conley avoids questions of blame and judgment in favor of celebrating his deepened relationship with his mother and reconciling (mostly) with his father. As for his faith, that too is recovering, if uncertainly. “My ex-gay therapists took Him away from me,” Conley writes, adding that losing the connection to God is “a sadness I deal with on a daily basis.”

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Neither Snow Nor Rain: A History of the United States Postal Service

By Devin Leonard, Grove Atlantic, 288 pp., $26

“The footprint of the mail carrier is the signpost of civilization,” said John Wanamaker, department store magnate and postmaster general of the United States in the 1890s. It’s difficult today to grasp just how crucial the Postal Service was to the daily life of Americans before the radio, telephone, television, and Internet. But in the early days of our nation, writes Devin Leonard, founding fathers from Washington to Franklin (our first postmaster general) “envisioned the postal service as a force that would bind Americans together, bringing them not only letters from friends and family members, but newspapers and magazines that would foster a common culture.”

Leonard starts at the beginning, chronicling a fledgling service that helped build routes through Colonial New England (including nearly 2,000 miles of post roads along the Atlantic coastline). As the country expanded, so too did the post office, hitting its peak around World War II, when both letter-writing and stamp-collecting were in vogue. In this wide-ranging, often fascinating history, Leonard touches on some of the sadder aspects of postal history, from censorship to violence to a changing economy that left many workers out in the cold.


Kate Tuttle, a writer and editor, can be reached at kate.tuttle@gmail.com.