In 2007 a series of explosions ripped through Baghdads Mutanabi Street, effectively shutting down the book market known for decades as Iraqs most popular gathering place for intellectuals and book lovers. Many of its shops and cafes have only recently reopened.
Today, with violence down, Iraq is struggling to rebuild its cultural and educational institutions. Art, music and theater are only beginning to rebound. Schools are open and roads are safe enough for students to reach them, but classrooms and teachers are in short supply.
Like so much else here, access to text books is improving. But progress is slow in a country where bombs still detonate almost daily, government corruption is rampant and electricity and clean water are scarce.
"Some say books are a small matter compared to many of Iraqs issues, but I say this is not true, said Alaa Makki, a Sunni Muslim lawmaker who heads the Iraqi parliament's education committee. "Without knowledge and educated people, who will solve these things? I believe education is the path to solve all (Iraqs) problems, even the political problems and the security issues.
A few grassroots book drives by teachers and students in the U.S. and other countries have helped put texts in a few more hands, but their contributions have amounted to a drop in the bucket relative to the wider problem.
So far, Makki acknowledged, efforts by Iraqs own fledgling government havent gone much further. He said his committee has asked for more funding for education from both domestic coffers and foreign aid organizations.
But real progress probably wont come until booksellers, publishers and distributors -- both here and abroad -- are convinced that Iraq is safe enough for business.
"Some of the shops and companies have come back, Makki said. "But not enough.
In the meantime, the government has begun sponsoring book fairs. So far there have been just two, one at Baghdad University that ended last week and another in northern Iraq. But Makki hopes for more.
So many people turned out for the Baghdad fair that its organizers extended the event from nine days to 15.
With 60,000 titles spread across dozens of folding tables in the universitys gymnasium, the fairs selection included books in both Arabic and English, on subjects ranging from medicine and engineering to acting and safe driving.
About 40 publishers participated, almost all of them foreign.
"It is so unexpected to see so many books on so many subjects in one place, said Lava Hawizi, a college student who perused dentistry and literature books. "Im taken completely by surprise.
Ahmed Basim, a local bookshop owner who organized the fair, said it was the first of its kind in Iraq in years. "For so long an event like this was impossible here, he said.
Basims shop, Al Thakera Books, bills itself as the largest academic and scientific bookseller in Iraq, though it has just two locations, one in Baghdad and one in Erbil in Iraq's Kurdish region in the north.
"Its true it may be hard to find academic books in Iraq, but the Iraqi reader is still an educated reader, Basim said. "So they appreciate this fair. They long for these books.
Reilly reports for the Merced Sun-Star. McClatchy special correspondent Sahar Issa contributed to this story.