Irene Vallejo (2019)

A history of books and reading.

This is a deep and cleverly-constructed history, running from the invention of papyrus scrolls to their replacement by parchment (and later paper) books. The transition away from papyrus brought with it a huge increase in comvenience – but also in the longevity of works, in that the physical stability and portability of books made it less likely that all copies of a work would disappear. Manuscripts needed to be physically copied to create another copy that might survive independently of the original; scrolls needed to be copied because they otherwise disintegrate.

Equally fascinating is the way books formed a central part of culture in the ancient world. I was particularly intrigued by the discussion of Roman libraries built in two rooms, one for the Latin and one for the Greek, and how the Romans saw and took up the challenges of Greek civilisation as a partial model (and counter-model) for their own. The centrality of literature to that endeavour is easy to overlook in more martial histories of Rome.

It’s also interesting to see the ways in which things now commonplace were once technological innovations – such as tables of contents, library catalogues, punctuation, and the like. These were shaped by the capabilities and limitations of scrolls as a storage medium, and have persisted functionally unchanged down to the present day.

5/5. Finished Saturday 4 November, 2023.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)