Book Review: The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu

By Merritt Frey, Executive Director

Since joining Mali Rising's staff, I've tried to read as many books written by Malians and/or about Mali as I can. Frankly, one doesn't find scads of them here in the U.S.

But I'd been hearing about The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu for a while, and was excited to see a pretty main-stream book that was set in Mali getting some attention.

As excited as I was to read it, it let me down a little (But read on! I'd still recommend the book.). I think a lot of that let down is about expectations and my own short-comings, not so much about the book.

Having heard parts of the real-life story, I was expecting an exciting story of intrigue and smuggling and dark-of-the-night exploits. And the book does indeed have plenty of that. It tells the story of a group of Malians -- with a particular focus on one, Abdel Kader Haidara -- who protected their literary heritage when the jihadists took over Mali's north and Timbuktu. 

It is an amazing tale of the beautiful manuscripts created over hundreds of years by a powerful culture and the people who love those ancient books. The sections that focused on the texts and their saviors were page turners and made me root for Haidara and his team, while generating anger at the threat to these gorgeous pieces of history (and all that was destroyed during this time).

However, the story jumps around a lot, making it hard to get truly swept up. In part this is because the author provides more than just the librarians' story -- he goes into detail about the history behind and the reality of the jihadists' rise to power in Mali's north.  

While I have to say this information added to my understanding of the problems in Mali -- and for those newer to the history could be really, really informative -- it felt disruptive when what I was looking for was an epic story of people rising above and doing good. That story was still there, but the disjointed nature of the timeline took some of the shine off the story's ultimately hopeful story of overcoming attacks on intellect, beauty, and history.

Still, this book is more than worth a read if you're interested in history, interested in the current troubles in Mali, or just looking for a story of people overcoming the bad things in the world to protect the beautiful things in the world. (And who isn't interested in those stories these days?)

You can purchase The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu at your local bookstore or at Amazon here. Note: We do not get an affiliate kick-back if you purchase via this link. But if you sign up for AmazonSmile and designate Mali Rising as your charity of choice, Amazon makes a small donation to our work.