The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Papyrus by Irene Vallejo review – how books built the world

What do you give the queen who has everything? When Mark Antony was wondering how to impress Cleopatra in the run-up to the battle of Actium in 31BC, he knew that jewellery would hardly cut it. The queen of the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt had recently dissolved a giant pearl in vinegar and then proceeded to drink it, just because she could. In the face of such exhausted materialism, the Roman general knew that he would have to pull out the stops if he was to win over the woman with whom he was madly in love. So he arrived bearing 200,000 scrolls for the great library at Alexandria.

On a logistical level this worked well: since the library was the biggest storehouse of books in the world, Cleopatra almost certainly had the shelf space. As a romantic gesture, it was equally provocative. Within weeks the middle-aged lovers were embarked on the final chapter of their erotic misadventure, the one which would mark the beginning of the end both for them and for Alexandria’s fabled library.

In this generous, sprawling work, the Spanish historian and philologist Irene Vallejo sets out to provide a panoramic survey of how books shaped not just the ancient world but ours too. While she pays due attention to the physicality of the book – what Oxford professor Emma Smith has called its “bookhood” – Vallejo is equally interested in what goes on inside its covers. And also, more importantly, what goes on inside a reader when they take up a volume and embark on an imaginative and intellectual dance that might just change their life. As much as a history of books, Papyrus is also a history of reading…