Regular readers know that relevance to contemporary politics is not a prerequisite for a book's inclusion on the TPM book list. And today's addition is certainly an example of that.
When I'm not working I like to read books about distant moments or places in the past to explore new worlds and soothe my nerves. Some books like this are grand and monumental like Fernand Braudel's The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Volume II. Others are short, enlightening and readily digestible. Libraries in the Ancient World by Lionel Casson falls in that latter category.
Books like this succeed rather than fail because they take a topic which might be dry and uninteresting and manage to make it entertaining and diverting. More than that they take a subject which, on first blush, seems self-explanatory and reveal a host of questions about it. They show how the complexities of the subject touch upon unexamined aspects of everyday life.
Casson's book begins with libraries in the really ancient world - when a 'book' was basically a slab of clay, back a few thousand years ago. He then takes us through classical antiquity when scrolls made out of papyrus or parchment were all the rage. Finally we get into the second or third century A.D. and then into the Late Antique period when the 'codex' - basically what we'd call a 'book' - starts to catch on.
For some reason which wasn't exactly clear to me it took some time for folks to realize that having individual sheets strung together was just a lot more convenient than having the whole book on one long page that you rolled up on two little wooden dowels.
Anyway, there are a host of interesting things you learn on the way. Like for instance, those clay tablets may have been a bitch to read but they rock for archaeologists since they're pretty much indestructible. Fires just make them stronger. And who knew that Ashurbanipal, a King of Assyria - one of the last of real consequence, Casson informs us - was the first guy who we know much about who built his own library? Who knew?
How did ancient libraries deal with book theft? Besides using hexes, that is?
Or wait, here's another question: If you were in an ancient Roman library and you sent some little library schmoe back to the stacks to get you something that took up a bunch of scrolls, how would he bring them out to you? It turns out, he'd bring them in a leather bucket.
Or, on a more substantive level, how did intellectual property work when all books were copied by the individual bookseller or user? I'll let you get a copy of the book to find out the answer.
I didn't want this book to end (something which, at a mere 145 pages, it did all too quickly). And I guess that's about the highest compliment you can give a book. Or a codex or a scroll or even a clay tablet, for that matter.