A rich exploration of the importance of books and libraries in the ancient world that highlights how humanity’s obsession with the printed word has echoed throughout the ages • “Accessible and entertaining.” —The Wall Street Journal
Long before books were mass-produced, scrolls hand copied on reeds pulled from the Nile were the treasures of the ancient world. Emperors and Pharaohs were so determined to possess them that they dispatched emissaries to the edges of earth to bring them back. When Mark Antony wanted to impress Cleopatra, he knew that gold and priceless jewels would mean nothing to her. So, what did her give her? Books for her library—two hundred thousand, in fact. The long and eventful history of the written word shows that books have always been and will always be a precious—and precarious—vehicle for civilization.
Papyrus is the story of the book’s journey from oral tradition to scrolls to codices, and how that transition laid the very foundation of Western culture. Award-winning author Irene Vallejo evokes the great mosaic of literature in the ancient world from Greece’s itinerant bards to Rome’s multimillionaire philosophers, from opportunistic forgers to cruel teachers, erudite librarians to defiant women, all the while illuminating how ancient ideas about education, censorship, authority, and identity still resonate today. Crucially, Vallejo also draws connections to our own time, from the library in war-torn Sarajevo to Oxford’s underground labyrinth, underscoring how words have persisted as our most valuable creations.
Through nimble interpretations of the classics, playful and moving anecdotes about her own encounters with the written word, and fascinating stories from history, Vallejo weaves a marvelous tapestry of Western culture’s foundations and identifies the humanist values that helped make us who we are today. At its heart a spirited love letter to language itself, Papyrus takes readers on a journey across the centuries to discover how a simple reed grown along the banks of the Nile would give birth to a rich and cherished culture.
Novelist and essayist Vallejo makes her English-language debut with this rewarding exploration of how books and libraries developed in the ancient Hellenistic and Roman eras. Detailing the influence of oral traditions on written narratives, changes in format from papyrus scrolls to tablets and codices, and the interplay between these early books and social, political, and cultural shifts, Vallejo contends that the history of books is closely intertwined with the development of Western civilization. She spotlights the creation, influence, and eventual decline of the Library of Alexandria; the subsequent burgeoning of libraries and booksellers in the Roman world; and the research methods and rhetorical techniques of Homer, Aristotle, Herodotus, and other Greek and Roman writers and philosophers. Throughout, Vallejo eloquently expresses her enthusiasm for literature and libraries, describing how the isolation and confusion she felt during a research fellowship at Oxford were alleviated by trips to the Sackler and Bodleian libraries and lamenting the social forces that imperil freedom of expression and maintenance of cultural memory. Written in a lush and immersive style and shot through with sparkling turns of phrase, this is catnip for bibliophiles and ancient history buffs.