Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu and their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer

Genre: Non-Fiction, History/Current Events
Maturity Level: 4*
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*Some Al Qaeda killings and body mutilations are described, which might be disturbing to some readers, however are not graphic. The novel is otherwise pretty G-rated.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

I’m going to do something I almost never do, which is start my review with a major criticism, mostly because I think that this might be a deal-breaker for many readers. This book is less about the priceless manuscripts than the title and synopsis might lead you to imagine. It’s really almost like Hammer wrote two books, one about Haidara and the manuscripts, and another that was essentially a history of the middle-eastern conflict in Mali and Timbuktu, and then kind of shoved them together.

Often I would go fifty or more pages without reading the word manuscript once. While these parts about Al Qaeda were certainly fascinating and well-reported, they are not what I would have chosen to read. I’m glad I read this book, I went from not knowing what continent Timbuktu was on to having a much clearer understanding of how the “war on terror” is still playing out across the world, and how that has affected countries like Mali. However, I would have preferred for those sections to be shorter and for the manuscripts to be a larger focus.

Like I said, this book was extremely well-reported, but the writing itself was quite good as well. I really felt like I got to know the people in this story, even the villainous jihadis. It was cool reading about how passionate the old families of Timbuktu are about their history of knowledge and reading. These people in particular leaped off the page, and I looked forward to the sections about them.

I had no idea that northern Africa once contained the cultural and intellectual capitol of the world. While Europe was still rotting in the dark ages, the people of Timbuktu had developed peace and intellectualism. The manuscripts, ancient illuminated books, the people of Mali passed down from generation through generation over hundreds of years are fascinating, and I hope one day to have the opportunity to go see them. It would have been nice for this book to include some pictures the way many non-fiction books do.

However, I had a hard time keeping up with the timeline. The story is told mostly linearly, however any time he introduced a new character Hammer would jump backwards in time to the beginning of that person’s timeline, or at least to their involvement. The lurching around made it hard to keep tabs on what was happening when, especially in relation to main sequence of events and the manuscripts.

Otherwise this book was great. Utterly fascinating, it is a must-read for anyone who is interested in the middle-east or the war on terror. Or to anyone interested in ancient documents and the art/science of protecting and preserving them. Warning: will likely challenge the way you think about the necessity of military might.

5 thoughts on “Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

  1. I really enjoyed this one but it was really confusing at times. I had wondered if it wasn’t because I had absolutely no knowledge of that part of the world or its history but at least we learned something new 🙂 Glad you enjoyed it to!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think it was because he wrote it in a confusing way. I’ve been reading a lot more non-fiction lately, and his decision to do timelines of individuals rather than an over-arching timeline was odd and definitely confusing. I’ve never seen anything like it.


  2. I remember seeing this at a bookstore ages ago and thinking it looked interesting! Glad to hear it’s well written and informative, and good to know that it’s not entirely focused on the manuscripts 😊 Definitely something I’d consider picking up at some point… Thanks for the great review!!

    Liked by 1 person

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