In the mid-2010’s Daraya, Syria – a small community just outside Damascus – was a focal point of the Syrian Civil War (which is still going on). Bombs and chemical weapons would rain down on the community daily – as much to wear down the morale of the citizens as it was to kill them.
A group of youth, determined to resist the attacking forces, would walk through town after a bombing raid to search for survivors. In addition to the occasional survivor, these youth found books. Books. And more books. Soon what this band of rebels had was an underground library.
The story was brought to the attention of Delphine Minoui, a French-Iranian journalist who managed to make a connection with the youth stocking and protecting and sharing the library. What she found were smart, dedicated people just looking to hang onto their homes, and with nothing to do day in and day out but wait for the bombs and search for survivors, these young people became voracious readers who also looked forward to semi-regular Facebook conversations with Delphine. For her part, Delphine became attached to these youths and would try to send digital books that were requested by the villagers who were essentially held captive in their own homes.
This is a fascinating story and with Delphine Minoui’s help we get to know a few of these young rebels. And while they might be presented on the news as rebels (if the news would even bother to cover this war), this book really humanizes these victims. With not much to hang on to in a city slowly being literally destroyed, a group of educated, intelligent young people have sought refuge and escapism in books. For those of who love to read (and chances are, if you are reading this blog or finding this review on Goodreads, you love to read) we can easily see ourselves here … minus the ever-present threat of being blown to bits.
Minoui relates and compares some of her own experiences watching horrors in her home of Paris and while visiting Istanbul, and these experiences make a strong statement on the general aggressiveness of human beings.
And while I found the book engaging, at the end of it I wasn’t sure what I was meant to take away from the reading. Is it just a news story, meant to inform and let the reader take away from it what they will? I don’t think so. It’s meant to be more than that, and the connection is in the books and the library, but that final literary ribbon to tie it all together was missing for me.
Looking for a good book? The Book Collectors by Delphine Minoui is a powerful story of a war-torn city and its people trying to survive but an opportunity to tell how the creation of the library was important to maintaining a semblance of normalcy was missed.
I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.
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The Book Collectors
author: Delphine Minoui
publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
hardcover, 197 pages