The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu by Joshua Hammer Reviewed by Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu; and Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts by Joshua Hammer; Simon & Schuster, 2016.  279 pages (hardcover); reading level: adult.

Hammer has to lay a lot of groundwork before he gets to the “bad-ass” rescue promised in the title.  He puts events a relatively well-informed reader might be able to call to mind (such as Taureg rebels causing trouble in Mali, Woodstock-style musical events in Essakane and Timbuktu beginning in 2003, and the fall of northern Mali to jihadists in 2011) into historical context and weaves in plenty that will be new to most (such as Timbuktu’s function as a center of learning in the late 1400s and the hiding of scholarly manuscripts in scattered homes following successive conquests by Morocco, the Tauregs, and France).  The book’s hero, Abdel Kader Haidara, is hired in 1984 as a “prospector” for the Ahmed Baba Institute of Higher Learning and Islamic Research to track down ancient manuscripts that have been secretly protected in homes for centuries and persuade their keepers to turn them over, for varying fees and exchanges, so that they can be brought to a central location for restoration and preservation. It is Haidara who, in 2011, masterminds the excruciatingly quiet spiriting-to-safety of nearly 400,000 collected manuscripts, right under the eyes of a terrifying band of jihadi overlords.  Many will lay the book aside before the action begins nearly halfway through. Those intrepid enough to soldier on will be rewarded with a rousing good story and a clear, contextualized picture of key events covered only sketchily by western media.

Connie Nordhielm Wooldridge, Author

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