Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World by Irene Vallejo

There are few things I love more than a book about books (I’m looking at you, The Shadow of the Wind), so when I read a review of Papyrus by Irene Vallejo in the Economist a few months ago, I quickly added it to my holds list at the library and eagerly grabbed it when my name was called.

Papyrus is less a book about books (the form we think of as a “book” doesn’t make its appearance until at least 100 pages in) and more about the history of storytelling and knowledge. How did civilizations learn to codify and memorialize their most important stories and histories? How did we learn to learn? Vallejo’s writing is lovely and she regularly injects her own history with reading and literature growing up in post-Franco Spain.

The book is obviously well researched – Vallejo takes the read deftly from the ancient Phonecians to the Library of Alexandria and the Sack of Rome with a well thought out and methodical approach. She does a great job of identifying the nuance between reading and writing, which aren’t necessarily the same thing and highlights the cultural difference (and value placed on) learning versus having learned. “Patricians and aristocrats valued knowledge and culture but disdained instruction,” she writes.” The irony was that it was ignoble to teach the very things it was honorable to learn.

My only point of contention is that I do think it presupposes a certain amount of knowledge of the ancient world. As a former Classics major, I wasn’t particularly bothered by this but I do worry that some aspects may leave the casual reader, who may not have a working understanding of Latin (often left untranslated) or the Gracchi brothers, confused. Overall, a really lovely, if slightly esoteric look at the evolution of learning. A very solid four stars.

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