Like most folks who hang out in my quartier of the Realm of Ideas, I have heard of the great library at Alexandria, and about the fire that destroyed it, thereby [or so I understood] depriving us of much of ancient literature and science. But to be honest, that was about all I knew. Indeed, I had only the vaguest idea where Alexandria was or is [it turns out to be on the western end of the Nile delta, maybe 100 miles northwest of Cairo.] So after racing through J. K. Rowling’s latest detective novel, and exhausting the schlock left by renters of my apartment, I went to the Abbey Bookshop and bought The Library of Alexandria, a 2004 collection of ten original essays mostly by Australian classical scholars, edited by Roy MacLeod. I am now more than halfway through the book [it only runs to 179 pages], and I confess that it is in many ways fascinating. It would be a grave understatement to say that I did not know most of what I am reading. Good grief. I did not know that Aristotle’s library is thought to have ended up in the library at Alexandria. Indeed, I did not even know that Aristotle had a personal library important enough to feature in such scholarly discussions.
[Wikipedia was less than helpful in filling me in about the book’s editor, by the way. When I typed in “Roy McLeod” – misspelling his name – the following wonderful bit of information popped up: “McLeod was the second head football coach for the Dickinson State Blue Hawks located in Dickinson, North Dakota and he held that position for the 1927 season. His coaching record at Dickinson State was 1 wins, 0 losses, and 1 ties. As of the conclusion of the 2009 season, this ranks him #13 at Dickinson State in total wins and #1 at the school in winning percentage (.750)” ]
It seems that writing was invented about 5000 to 5400 years ago in the Mesopotamian city of Uruk, in what is now southern Iraq [you understand that I am simply repeating what I have just read – I am completely at the mercy of the authors whose essays I have now finished.] D. T. Potts tells us that writing was “devised, purely and simply, as a solution to an accounting-technical problem [namely, how to manage the state lands and wealth that the rulers had extracted from their subjects], not for the perpetuation of myths, epics, hymns, historical records, or royal propaganda.” The first real library – that is to say, a systematic collection and indexing of texts, either on tablets or papyrus or parchment – dates from a bit less than three thousand years later. An Assyrian king named Asurbanipal [how many of you have heard of him? I certainly had not] seems to have assembled a sizable collection of “books” – perhaps as many as 5,000 distinct titles, albeit represented by 30,000 or more tablets, fragments of tablets, and other archeologically recovered remains.
But the great library at Alexandria, established in the 4th century B.C., is said to have held as many as four hundred thousand scrolls, some containing one work alone, others containing several works. I was staggered when I read that. That is the equivalent of a first-rate modern American college library. Now, to be sure, not all the books in the Great Library of Alexandria were of the quality of Aristotle’s Physics. But then, neither are all the books in the Frost Library at Amherst College!
One of the distinct charms of reading a collection of essays like this about a subject one knows nothing about [as opposed to a book-length treatise by a single scholar] is that whereas everything in the first essay is news, by the fourth or fifth essay, you find yourself encountering again and again the same relatively small budget of juicy stories and quotes. Ptolemy III Euergetes [there were fifteen Ptolemys, the thirteenth of course being Cleopatra’s half-brother, defeated by the combined military forces of Elizabeth Taylor and Claude Raines] apparently made it a practice to seize whatever books could be found on ships entering the harbor at Alexandria, thereby augmenting the holdings of the Library. The first time one encounters this story, it is enchanting. The third time, one says with world-weary ease, “Oh yes, Ptolemy III Euergetes – I know all about him.” The Great Fire, by the way, started either deliberately or accidently by Caesar, may not have actually the preponderance of holdings of the Library, although it does seem to have knocked a hole in them.
Let me close with a wonderful quote from Seneca the Younger in the first century A. D., of which I was also unaware. “What is the point of countless books and libraries, whose titles the owner can barely read through in his lifetime? The sheer number of them burdens and does not instruct the one who wants to learn, and it is much better to entrust yourself to a few authors than to wander through many.”