Papyrus by Irene Vallejo

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

The lure of owning and reading books is still alive and well despite the growth of eBooks and their accompanying readers and apps. The desire to hold and physically look through a volume, no matter the size, is as strong as it has ever been if the number of book shops, and online orders, are anything to go by. I don’t think there are too many people who have not immersed themselves in a good book as a way of relaxing or just passing time. As we read though, have we considered how the modern book came to be in the form we are familiar with today?

Irene Vallejo in Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World takes us back to the beginning of the story of the written word in its various forms. Three main civilisations lie at the heart of her account. Egypt, Greece and Rome each have their part to play in developing the invention that has surpassed them and is still active through to the present era.

Egypt’s use of papyrus was revolutionary. The scrolls that were produced could hold more information than the clay tablets of previous times. This allowed for better record keeping and preservation of material. Though papyrus scrolls were fragile and had to be handled with care, they were seen an important acquisition even if the owner was illiterate. It was in Ptolemaic Egypt that libraries, especially the great library at Alexandria, began to be built as a way of storing and preserving scrolls containing knowledge of the then known world. Vallejo spends a lot of time trying to imagine what the great library was like and how it became one of the key centres of learning that attracted scholars from all parts of the Mediterranean world. Its destruction is still regarded as a great tragedy even in the twenty-first century.

It is from Greece that we have different styles of writing such as plays, poems and philosophical treatises. The Iliad and The Odyssey are probably two of the most read books of all time. Vallejo reminds us that Alexander the Great always had these two volumes with him as he conquered lands and grew his empire. The development of shorter scrolls and codices came into being as a means of putting various genres of written material into people’s hands.

The Roman Republic and Empire furthered this process by producing the codex in the familiar form we know today with its bound pages and spines bearing the title. Through all this was the desire of scholars to preserve and use what had been inherited from the past. The stories of those who risked their lives to keep books and scrolls for future generations is told in great and fascinating detail.

Vallejo also injects her personal journey as a reader and passionate scholar throughout the book. She has connected the story of how books were invented in the Ancient World with the world of today and reminds us that, like our ancient forebears, we are but the custodians of knowledge whose main task is to pass it on to future generations.

Irene Vallejo earned her European Doctorate from the Universities of Zaragoza and Florence. Papyrus was awarded the National Essay Prize., the Critical Eye Prize for Narrative and the Bookstore Recommendation Award. Vallejo is a regular columnist for El Pais and is the author of two children’s books, two novels and three collections of essays, articles and short fiction.

Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

by Irene Vallejo


Hodder & Stoughton

ISBN 978 152934 397 7

$32.99; 444pp


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