...vividly captures the history and strangeness of this place in a fast-paced narrative that gets us behind today’s headlines of war and terror. This is part reportage and travelogue, part intellectual history, part geopolitical tract and part out-and-out thriller.
...part history, part scholarly adventure story and part journalistic survey of the volatile religious politics of the Maghreb region. The title is quite irritating; the rest of it is very good ... Hammer writes with verve and expertise, but there are two problems with the thriller tone that underpins his story. The first is the question of just how 'bad-ass' Haidara really was. While his teams were removing manuscripts, he had evacuated himself to Bamako, offering coordination and encouragement from a distance. This is a perfectly acceptable decision for a middle-aged scholar with two wives and lots of children, but it doesn’t quite make him Indiana Jones The level of threat posed to the manuscripts is also debatable.
There’s no need to reveal here just how these brave librarians and citizens managed to smuggle 377,000 intact manuscripts out of harm’s way past a brutal totalitarian regime, through lawless wilderness and war zones to Mali’s capital city of Bamako far to the south. Suffice it to say that they earn their 'bad ass' sobriquet several times over. Riveting skulduggery, revealing history and current affairs combine in a compelling narrative with a rare happy ending. So far.
There are nail-biting moments when everything hangs in the balance, and the author makes the most of these. One can almost imagine the movie version. Some photographs of the elegant calligraphy and bejeweled splendor of the manuscripts would have enhanced the story; a map or two would help. A fine PBS documentary a few years ago by Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, The Road to Timbuktu, introduced this cultural treasure to many in the Eurocentric West. Hammer’s book is an excellent place to catch up on the story.
A former Newsweek bureau chief and foreign correspondent, Joshua Hammer possesses a knowledge of the Middle East and North Africa, Islam and jihadists, that gives the book authority and authenticity ... Hammer crafts a thoughtful history of the Middle East and Africa in a narrative that goes beyond the one- and two-dimensional views popular today. He writes matter-of-factly about the intellectual depth and integrity of ancient civilizations that have long been dismissed or disputed by Western scholars.
Mr. Hammer has conducted many interviews with Mr. Haidara and other participants, and has spent considerable time in Mali. This is no parachute journalism or detached academic study; Librarians is marked by the careful detail of time spent steeped in a place ... The book is not without its problems. It was often difficult to keep track of the many characters and sequence of events. I constructed a crude timeline of events and notations on characters in order to follow along. Additionally, there is only one image of a manuscript ... Librarians is an engaging, well-plotted historical adventure that will appeal to history and book lovers. Yet beware, the book falls too easily into the simplistic civilization vs. barbarism.