cover image Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Irene Vallejo, trans. from the Spanish by Charlotte Whittle. Knopf, $35 (464p) ISBN 978-0-593-31889-8

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. (Oct.)