Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Review: Papyrus

Title: Papyrus
Author: Irene Vallejo

Publisher: 11th October 2022 by Hachette Australia

Pages: 384 pages

Genre: nonfiction, history, books about books

My Rating: 5 cups


An enthralling journey through the history of books and libraries in the ancient world and those who have helped preserve their rich literary traditions 

Long before books were mass-produced, those made of reeds from along the Nile were worth fighting and dying for. Journeying along the battlefields of Alexander the Great, beneath the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, at Cleopatra's palaces and the scene of Hypatia's murder, award-winning author Irene Vallejo chronicles the excitement of literary culture in the ancient world, and the heroic efforts that ensured this extraordinary tradition would continue. 

Weaved throughout are fascinating stories about the spies, scribes, illuminators, librarians, booksellers, authors, and statesmen whose rich and sometimes complicated engagement with the written word bears remarkable similarities to the world today: Aristophanes and the censorship of the humorists, Sappho and the empowerment of women's voices, Seneca and the problem of a post-truth world. 

Vallejo takes us to mountainous landscapes and the roaring sea, to the capitals where culture flourished and the furthest reaches where knowledge found refuge in chaotic times. In this sweeping tour of the history of books, the wonder of the ancient world comes alive and, along the way, we discover the singular power of the written word.

My Thoughts

‘The papyrus scroll represented an extraordinary amount of progress. After centuries of searching for the right format, of humans writing on stone, mud, wood, or metal, language had finally found its home in organic matter. The first book in history was born when words - as ethereal as air - found refuge in the pith of an aquatic plant.’

What’s not to love when you come across a rare and fascinating book about books. Where the love for the written word is poured into every page. Papyrus is such a book that will take readers on a special journey. Author Irene Vallejo’s ode to books/reading and her knowledge of literature, particularly with regards to history of the written word, is wonderfully written. A definite must-read for anyone who loves books.

‘I suspect that as they searched for traces of every book as if they were pieces of scattered treasure, without knowing it, they were laying the foundations of our world.’

Irene has done her research and provides a smorgasbord of goodness. Readers will learn a little of the history of how books started and complemented with facts, philosophy, thoughts and ideas. It is a wonderful reference that will see you coming back time and again. A plethora of anecdotes and personal notes from the author surrounding the emergence of books - precious moments from the history of literature. 

‘This account is an attempt to continue the adventure of those book hunters. I would like somehow, to be their unlikely travel companion, on the scent of lost manuscripts, unknown stories, and voices in danger of being silenced.’

This is neither a complete academic essay or personal reflection but the successful melding of the two. I thoroughly enjoyed Irene’s writing and thought the weaving of both fiction and nonfiction was well done. The history of papyrus and books is reflected on through personal retellings that results in a rich tapestry for book lovers to delight in. 

‘Let's talk about you for a moment, the person reading these lines. Right now, with the book open in your hands, you are engaged in a mysterious, unsettling activity, though habit prevents you from being amazed. Think carefully. You are completely quiet, eyes moving over rows of letters made into meaning, that deliver ideas independent from the world now surrounding you. In other words, you have withdrawn to an inner chamber where absent voices speak; where there are ghosts only you can see ….  and where the pace of time's passage is the measure of your level of interest or boredom. You have created a parallel world …. a world that depends on you alone. At any moment, you can avert your gaze from these lines and return to the action and movement of the outside world. But in the meantime, you remain on the edge, in the place where you've chosen to be. There is an almost magical aura to the act of reading.’

If you delight in books and reading, you are in for a treat. Looking to learn a little more of the evolution of ancient literature, this proves a most accessible read. It does not adopt a linear approach, or have pages filled with high end vocabulary. What it does offer is an entertaining history of books with interesting back stories and reflections. From the first attempts on clay tablets, to papyrus, to paper books, to ebooks, Irene has written a tale of past, present and future that I highly recommend to lovers of literature.

‘I'm so amazed by the true and recorded history I discover that it seeps into my dreams and acquires, without my volition, the shape of a story. I'm tempted to step into the skin of those who traveled the roads of an ancient, violent, tumultuous Europe in pursuit of books.’

This review is based on a complimentary copy from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The quoted material may have changed in the final release.

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