This is a transcription of ‘The British Library Hack and Two New Books — 05 January 2024’
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Melissa: Coming up, a caper set in the underbelly of the art world.
David: The many stories of a 400-year old barn.
Melissa: Plus, our distraction of the week. I’m Mel.
David: I’m Dave. This is the library of lost time.
Melissa: I love a thriller set in the art world. I’m a longtime fan of the Gabriel Allon series by Daniel Silva. For anyone not familiar, Gabriel is not only a deadly assassin, he’s also the world’s foremost art restorer. Those books have wildly entertaining spy hijinks and lots of amazing detail about art forgery, reproductions, and painting restoration. I also really loved The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith. That one is an art caper about a talented forger and the theft of a famous Dutch painting.
Melissa: So I’m primed to enjoy a new novel about a masterpiece handed down through the ages. It’s ‘The Lost Van Gogh’ by Jonathan Santlofer. This is a follow-up to his 2021 novel ‘The Last Mona Lisa’ which. That’s a fictionalized story of when da Vinci’s masterpiece was stolen from the Louvre in 1911. It has a twisty plot that travels to Florence, Paris, and New York City. It was a smashing success.
Melissa: This new one brings the same sense of action, adventure, and suspense to the story of a rumored final self-portrait painted by Vincent Van Gogh. When an artist and the daughter of a notorious art thief find what might be the missing portrait, they’re sucked into solving what could be a very dangerous puzzle. There are flashbacks to WWII French resistance fighters, insider details about the underbelly of the art world, and interactions with INTERPOL.
Melissa: I’ve read the first two chapters so far and pretty much hooked. It opens with a forger in Paris in 1944. He’s listening to the BBC on a contraband radio while he paints, disguising the Van Gogh painting in a very clever way. When he’s finished with his work, he fiddles with the radio’s dial again, this time to find the resistance radio station and his instructions — delivered in code — for what he should do next. I loved that sneak peek at how the sneaky deeds are done. A Kirkus review said Jonathan Santlofer’s books are a must for fans of Arturo Perez-Reverte, and I totally get that. If you liked ‘The Seville Communion,’ which I recommended in our Spain episode, you might like this one, too. It’s ‘The Lost Van Gogh’ by Jonathan Santlofer.
David: I’ve got one more book that I stole from the best-of-2023 lists I’ve been reading. That book is Daniel Mason’s ‘North Woods.’ This novel explores one of my favorite questions. The question is, ‘Who used to live here?’ Before I was here, who walked these halls, slept in this room, grew up or died here?
David: ‘North Woods’ tells the story of a farmhouse in Massachusetts and its residents. It starts 400 years ago. Two pilgrims have abandoned their settlement and decided to create their own lives. They make up a ceremony to marry themselves — alone, out there in the woods — and then swim naked in the brook. The man picks up a stone from the water, and sets it down in a clearing to mark the corner of their new home. That’s the start of the barn.
David: There are generations of tenants from there, each with their own story. Sometimes, the old details and characters surface again. Maybe there are ghosts in the barn. You may recognize them before the characters do.
David: One of the things that draws me to this book is that it’s written in a variety of styles. There’s some thriller in here, some family drama, some paranormal romance. The book has poems and lyrics and is an Address to the Historical Society of Western Massachusetts. There are photos and illustrations. There are a lot of voices in North Woods.
David: This book was very well received by The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal. It is literary and magical. It’s Daniel Mason’s ‘North Woods.’
David: And now our Distraction of the Week. [magical sound effect]
David: This will be old news to some of you, but I think it’s interesting. The British Library has been hacked. In a terrible way. In a way that’s limited their ability to be a library for the last two months. But before we get into that, let’s talk about the British Library.
David: The British Library is one of the leading centers of research in the world. It catalogs more items than any other library, including the Library of Congress. It has 14 million books alone. But it also collects newspapers, patents, maps, stamps, prints, and sound recordings. Together, it’s about 200 million items. The library is what they call a ‘legal deposit’ library, which means that it receives a copy of every book published or distributed in the United Kingdom. Each year, the library adds some shelf space — about six miles of shelf space.
David: If you are a reader or a researcher, the British Library is a bit of nirvana. Maybe you’re looking for Henry VIII’s personal bible, the first one in English, or one of Leonardo Da Vinci’s notebooks, or lyrics of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ written out by Paul McCartney, or a signed copy of ‘Jane Eyre’ or ‘Finnegan’s Wake’ or maybe Jane Austen’s writing desk — the British Library can set you up.If you’re looking for Shakespeare’s first folio, they have five.
David: And, until October 27th of this year, they had a remarkably efficient way of getting materials to its readers using a network of conveyor belts that carried books up from its many basements. But then, early on the 28th, a group of hackers who call themselves Rhysida got into the library’s systems. Rhysida specializes in a form of crime called ‘double extortion ransomware.’ What is double extortion ransomware? That’s where a bad guy breaks into a server, copies all the data he can, and then encrypts everything on that server. So now, he’s got all the digital files which he might use or sell. But also, he’s left a copy of everything behind, just locked. Then he adds a PDF that says, ‘Give me money, and I’ll restore your data.’
David: Since May, Rhysida has tried to extort the Chilean Army, a video game company, and a few companies in the healthcare industry. When Rhysida hit the British Library, they broke the public wifi, stole records for all of the staff and members, corrupted the online catalog, brought down the website, the phone lines, and all online services: the exhibition-ticket sales, reader registration, and credit card transactions in the gift shop. The library also had an extraordinary amount of online material — digital books, journals, six hundred thousand doctoral theses, and archives of all kinds. All of that was encrypted.
David: Perhaps the worst of it was when Rhysida broke the retrieval system. The British Library manages its book titles with custom software. Books in the basements are organized according to shape and how frequently they’re needed. I suspect you can imagine what a mess it is to have 14 million books sorted by popularity without a database to track them.
David: It’s been a long couple of months for the British Library. To their credit, they refused to pay the terrorists. For one, that would put money in their hands. For another, that would make the Library a known mark, and make them a target for other attacks. Nobody wants to give those guys a win. But the aftermath has been rough. Executives at the library estimate that it will be months before it is back up to its former self.
David: In the meantime — stiff upper lip and all — the British Library is open, from 8:30 to 4:30 Monday through Friday, not far from King’s Cross Station in London. There is a temporary website offering limited services. An update from November says they plan to have the main catalog back online on January 15th.
Melissa: Visit strongsenseofplace.com/library for more on the books we talked about today and more on the beautiful British Library.
David: Thanks for joining us on the library of last time. Remember to visit your local library and your independent bookstore to lose some time yourself.
Melissa: Stay curious. We’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of Andrew Dunn.
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