Summary and book reviews of The Book Collectors by Delphine Minoui

The Book Collectors

A Band of Syrian Rebels and the Stories That Carried Them Through a War

by Delphine Minoui

The Book Collectors by Delphine  Minoui X
The Book Collectors by Delphine  Minoui
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  • Published:
    Nov 2020, 208 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Ian Muehlenhaus
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Book Summary

Award-winning journalist Delphine Minoui recounts the true story of a band of young rebels, a besieged Syrian town, and an underground library built from the rubble of war.

Reading is an act of resistance.

Daraya is a town outside Damascus, the very spot where the Syrian Civil War began. Long a site of peaceful resistance to the Assad regimes, Daraya fell under siege in 2012. For four years, no one entered or left, and aid was blocked. Every single day, bombs fell on this place―a place of homes and families, schools and children, now emptied and broken into bits.

And then a group searching for survivors stumbled upon a cache of books in the rubble. In a week, they had six thousand volumes; in a month, fifteen thousand. A sanctuary was born: a library where people could escape the blockade, a paper fortress to protect their humanity.

The library offered a marvelous range of books―from Arabic poetry to American self-help, Shakespearean plays to stories of war in other times and places. The visitors shared photos and tales of their lives before the war, planned how to build a democracy, and tended the roots of their community despite shell-shocked soil.

In the midst of the siege, the journalist Delphine Minoui tracked down one of the library's founders, twenty-three-year-old Ahmad. Over text messages, WhatsApp, and Facebook, Minoui came to know the young men who gathered in the library, exchanged ideas, learned English, and imagined how to shape the future, even as bombs kept falling from above. By telling their stories, Minoui makes a far-off, complicated war immediate and reveals these young men to be everyday heroes as inspiring as the books they read. The Book Collectors is a testament to their bravery and a celebration of the power of words.

Excerpt
The Book Collectors

At first Ahmad is a distant voice coming through my computer speakers. A fragile whisper from a hidden basement. When I first make contact with him on Skype, on October 15, 2015, he hasn't left Daraya in nearly three years. Located fewer than five miles from Damascus, his town is a sarcophagus, surrounded and starved by the regime. He is one of twelve thousand survivors. In the beginning, I struggle to understand what he is saying. He mumbles, timid but keyed up, his words broken by the omnipresent crackling of explosions. Between detonations, I try to focus on his face. He appears on my computer screen, then disappears, at the mercy of an internet connection patched together from small satellite dishes smuggled from abroad in the early days of the revolution.

His image stretches and deforms like a Picasso portrait: round cheeks slant at an angle under black-rimmed glasses before breaking into a million cubic pieces and fading behind a thick black curtain. ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

The Book Collectors works because of its structure. The writing is poetic, but the chapters are short. In fact, most start and conclude with an abruptness resembling the variable length of WhatsApp video chats. In lesser hands, the book would feel like a series of disjointed journal entries recapping what was said in patchy internet interviews. But Minoui uses the choppy style to mimic the intermittent nature of how she met and came to know the individuals in the book. She then teases out deeper and hidden meanings from many of the seemingly banal conversations...continued

Full Review Members Only (992 words).

(Reviewed by Ian Muehlenhaus).

Media Reviews

NPR
The Book Collectors is about hope and connection against unspeakable violence, deprivation, and tragedy. It is a meaningful addition to the literary subgenre that covers books and libraries.

Publishers Weekly
[A] haunting portrait of the 2012–2016 siege of Daraya, a suburb of Damascus, during the Syrian civil war...Fluidly translated and emotionally powerful, this devastating account pays tribute to the "dream of a better world" that never fully came true.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
An extraordinary story about the passion for books in war-torn Syria...It's an agonizing tale, but readers will be appreciative that Minoui has brought it to light. Shelve this one next to Reading Lolita in Tehran. Heartbreaking, inspiring, and beautifully told.

Library Journal (starred review)
This compassionate portrayal of an engaging group of rebels serves as a testament to both the resilience of the human spirit and to the power of story. Highly recommended for those interested in current events, Middle East history and politics, and personal accounts of war.

Booklist (starred review)
Readers will be moved by the plight of the people of Daraya, and inspired by their faith in the power of books to give information, release, and hope.

Author Blurb Susan Orlean, author of The Library Book
This is an urgent and compelling account of great bravery and passion. Delphine Minoui has crafted a book that champions books and the individuals who risk everything to preserve them.

Author Blurb Nancy Pearl, author of Book Lust and George and Lizzie
I was so moved by this account of the young rebels of Daraya, Syria, who, in the midst of a four-year blockade by Assad's forces (including having poison gas used against them), set up a library with books rescued from bombed and destroyed buildings, an underground (in both senses of the word) library that grew to more than 15,000 titles, ranging from Stephen Covey's The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People to Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, and everything in between. In this testimony to the power of reading, these lines stood out: 'Books are their best way to escape the war, if only temporarily. A melody of words against the dirge of bombs.'

Author Blurb Négar Djavadi, author of Disoriental
Absolutely essential reading. With masterful storytelling, Delphine Minoui recounts the struggle and tenacity of the youth of Daraya who, in the shadow of a merciless war, rescue books from the rubble and bring to life a library unlike any other. Each page connects us to their strength and their spirit as well as to the power of words in a crumbling world. This book is an ode to resistance, to freedom, and to life.

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Beyond the Book

Libraries and Other Imagined Communities

In The Book Collectors, a band of Syrian resistance fighters work together to salvage and share books from their bombed-out suburb of Damascus. The book focuses on the protagonists' newfound passion for reading, which helps them cope with the hardships of everyday life during very dark times.

Though it's nice to think that these young revolutionaries decided to create this library due to an untamed passion for knowledge, social scientists have shown that there was probably another, more primal reason behind their actions as well. Libraries, museums, marketplaces and civic structures of all varieties are important vectors in identity creation and community building. They are components of what Michael Billig calls "banal nationalism" &#...

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