Where Books Were Worth Their Weight In Gold

January 11, 2017

Tags: library, books, book preservation, Mali, West Africa, Timbuktu

The Library of Timbuktu – A Poem by Michael Wolfe from Unity Productions Foundation on Vimeo.

There is a port on the Niger River, in the western Sahara Desert, called Timbuktu. I first got wind of this fabled city in my twenties, when I was traveling through Mali.

People there said that, in centuries past, Timbuktu had been the capital and literary heart of a thriving medieval empire. Generations of scholars and students had flocked to its universities from as far away as Cairo. Even today, hundreds of thousands of precious manuscripts were said to be stored in its famous libraries, where dry desert air and the city’s love of wisdom kept them safe.

“And,” (almost everyone added), “back in the day, a book was worth its weight in gold in Timbuktu.”

I had to see it.

When I finally did, Timbuktu was a faded shadow of its former glory. I rode into town in a sandstorm, bouncing around in an overcrowded truck filled with goats and chickens. I wasn’t on a site-seeing tour. I was traveling Last Class. It was the third year of a very bad drought. People stood by the roadside begging water.

The precious manuscripts were still around, however, passed down over many generations, stored in private homes, in some cases buried in troves beneath the sand to protect them from robbers and from book sharks too, wholesalers intent on buying them up in lots, to re-sell to collectors in Europe.

My stay in Timbuktu was brief, but the spirit of the place and its time-honored love of literature stayed with me. When I returned to the USA a few years later, I started a book company In Bolinas, California named for this fabled place.

Then in April, 2016, the journalist Joshua Hammer wrote his bestselling nonfiction account, The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu. It tells the true story of how, a few years before, all those manuscripts had miraculously been saved from terrorists and religious fundamentalists — without a single item lost. An inspiring tale, it might have ended very differently except for the efforts of a single Timbuktu resident, a man named Dr. Abdel Kader Haidara, and his dedicated network of supporters.

Bibliophiles have never had a better, more daring friend. If you love literature and enjoy a well-reported adventure, you’ll want to read it.

Even before I had finished the book, it moved me to write a poem in Dr. Haidara’s voice—a dramatic monologue, called “The Librarian of Timbuktu.”

In the short video I’ve illustrated a reading of the poem with photos of the manuscripts and the place, to help their story come to life. Please enjoy it and share it.


  1. January 12, 2017 12:42 PM EST
    You manage to spread the word of Timbuktu's library in the most beautiful way.
    - Sandy Handsher
  2. January 12, 2017 12:46 PM EST
    Thank you. I hope you'll spread the word on FB and Twitter!
    - Michael
  3. January 12, 2017 2:57 PM EST
    Thanks for sharing Michael, it harkens back to an era when people thought long and hard about meaning and existence and found value in painstakingly recording those thoughts for posterity. It reminded me of UCLA Quranic Scholar El-Fadl's A Search for Beauty in Islam: A Conference of the Books.
    - Kevin James
  4. January 12, 2017 3:17 PM EST
    It is fascinating and gratifying to see how these books are treasured and protected.
    - D. Jan Cella
  5. January 12, 2017 3:35 PM EST
    Thanks, Kevin. You're right. El Fadl's books do carry on that spirit.
    - Michael Wolfe
  6. January 12, 2017 3:36 PM EST
    Thanks, Jan. Glad you get it. Please pass it on as you see fit.
    - Michael Wolfe
  7. January 12, 2017 5:34 PM EST
    WOW! This is terrific. I've now spread it far and wide to hundreds, and am trying to remember the name of a Norwegian scholar I knew who worked a good deal in Timbuktu. I'll pass it on to her, too, as soon as my brain kicks in. Mabruk, Michael, and much muchness to you
    - Jennifer Heath
  8. January 12, 2017 7:13 PM EST
    Thanks, Jennifer. That is plain great. I'll keep an eye out for your associates and friends. BTW: Planning a screening in Denver of our new film, at the end of April. Just FYI. :)
    - Michael Wolfe
  9. January 13, 2017 2:45 PM EST
    Thanks to the many on facebook who, I notice, have shared this with their network of friends. That's the whole point! Cheers, Onward
    - Michael

Translation, Poetry
A selection of 125 Greek epitaphs translated into English and introduced by Michael Wolfe, with a Foreword by Richard P. Martin. Johns Hopkins University Press. "A wonderful book!" Kay Ryan. "His translations of the Greek epitaphs are simply stunning." Richard Wilbur. Widely reviewed in Classics journals and in: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2013/04/codeunknown-reading-writing/ Arts Fuse: http://artsfuse.org/79947/fuse-poetry-review-lapidary-ends-cut-these-words-into-my-stone/
Travel Writing Anthology: 2016 Expanded Edition
“…an exemplary job of detailing the ceremonies performed at Mecca and the reasons behind them. The (twenty-five) chosen excerpts give the reader a sense of how the hajj has changed over time as well as how constant the central ceremonies have remained. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.” Library Journal (STARRED review) “A tradition of Muslim writing aimed at the insiders and out.” The Boston Globe. In Quality Paper and E-book formats
Nonfiction Travel Narrative
“It requires a special sensitivity to write well about the Hadj…Michael Wolfe’s tone is exactly right.” The Times Literary Supplement. In Quality Paper and E-book formats

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