Our thanks to Kathryn Hughes at the Guardian for giving us a look into the most recent work of Irene Vallejo:
From Alexandria to Oxford, a kaleidoscopic history of the written word
What do you give the queen who has everything? When Mark Antony was wondering how to impress Cleopatra in the run-up to the battle of Actium in 31BC, he knew that jewellery would hardly cut it. The queen of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt had recently dissolved a giant pearl in vinegar and then proceeded to drink it, just because she could. In the face of such exhausted materialism, the Roman general knew that he would have to pull out the stops if he was to win over the woman with whom he was madly in love. So he arrived bearing 200,000 scrolls for the great library at Alexandria.
On a logistical level this worked well: since the library was the biggest storehouse of books in the world, Cleopatra almost certainly had the shelf space. As a romantic gesture, it was equally provocative. Within weeks the middle-aged lovers were embarked on the final chapter of their erotic misadventure, the one which would mark the beginning of the end both for them and for Alexandria’s fabled library.
In this generous, sprawling work, the Spanish historian and philologist Irene Vallejo sets out to provide a panoramic survey of how books shaped not just the ancient world but ours too. While she pays due attention to the physicality of the book – what Oxford professor Emma Smith has called its “bookhood” – Vallejo is equally interested in what goes on inside its covers. And also, more importantly, what goes on inside a reader when they take up a volume and embark on an imaginative and intellectual dance that might just change their life. As much as a history of books, Papyrus is also a history of reading.
This a huge project, so it is apt that Vallejo not only starts from, but repeatedly returns to the equally ambitious great library of Alexandria. Reputedly dreamed up by Alexander the Great, who as a little boy used to sleep with a copy of the Iliad tucked under his pillow, there is no getting away from the fact that the library was conceived as a vanity project. Just as the young emperor announced: “The Earth I consider mine,” he also believed that all knowledge could be his, too, if only he could gather all existing books into one place. He didn’t live long enough to make a start, but over the third century BC the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt, Cleopatra’s predecessors, set about locating, buying and, when all else failed, stealing every book that had ever been written. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides topped the shopping list. It sounds, as Vallejo rightly says, like the plot of a novel by Borges at his most postmodern.
Once the library was up and running, it acquired a personality of its own that was markedly different from Alexander’s grasping narcissism. Instead of a deep freeze of ancient knowledge, Vallejo pictures it as a joyous meeting place for lively minds. Here, she says, knowledge workers sat companionably side by side, not always agreeing, but able to listen to another point of view and discuss accordingly…
Read the whole article here.