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.
This a huge project, so it is apt that Vallejo not only starts from, but repeatedly returns to the equally ambitious great library of Alexandria. Reputedly dreamed up by Alexander the Great, who as a little boy used to sleep with a copy of the Iliad tucked under his pillow, there is no getting away from the fact that the library was conceived as a vanity project. Just as the young emperor announced: “The Earth I consider mine,” he also believed that all knowledge could be his, too, if only he could gather all existing books into one place. He didn’t live long enough to make a start, but over the third century BC the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt, Cleopatra’s predecessors, set about locating, buying and, when all else failed, stealing every book that had ever been written. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides topped the shopping list. It sounds, as Vallejo rightly says, like the plot of a novel by Borges at his most postmodern.
Once the library was up and running, it acquired a personality of its own that was markedly different from Alexander’s grasping narcissism. Instead of a deep freeze of ancient knowledge, Vallejo pictures it as a joyous meeting place for lively minds. Here, she says, knowledge workers sat companionably side by side, not always agreeing, but able to listen to another point of view and discuss accordingly.
Indeed, it turns out that good hearing was a key skill. Since all reading at that time occurred out loud rather than inside one’s head, the study rooms were a modern librarian’s nightmare: no one seemed to understand the requirement to shush. Silent reading, when it eventually arrived, seemed highly suspect and slightly sneaky. As late as the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo was disconcerted to notice that when Ambrose, bishop of Milan, read silently it was as if he had escaped into a world of his own where no one else could follow.
From here, Vallejo does not, as you might anticipate, proceed in an orderly chronological manner through the gradual falling apart of the great Alexandrian project. Instead, she propels us forward 23 centuries to meet two men who provide a vivid picture of the long half-life of the city’s bookish heritage.
The first of these is Constantin Cavafy, a bureaucrat of Greek origin who toiled in the uninspiring environment of the British-run Egyptian ministry of public works in the early years of the 20th century. By night, though, Cavafy was a book-haunted man, walking the back streets of Alexandria through which the vanished great library thrummed and whispered to him. He composed poems featuring well-known characters from Troy, Ithaca, Athens and Byzantium and contemplated the way that homosexuality, by then such a disgraced and disgraceful affair, had once been a rich thread in the ancient world.
The other modern author Vallejo references is, inevitably, Lawrence Durrell, in whose Alexandria Quartet she also finds the insistent pulse of ancient life. Not just its dry knowledge, but also the erotic thrill that emerges whenever so many cultures, tongues and religions are pressed together in both study and play (there is, after all, life beyond the library).
Vallejo’s methodology, then, is to dart back and forth between the ancient and modern worlds and between public history – the rise of the Roman empire, the Suez canal blockade – and personal moments. The latter include harrowing accounts of how survivors in the gulag and the concentration camps learned to write whole books in their heads, priming themselves for the moment when they would have access to writing materials to tell their stories. In effect, they turned their vanishing bodies into books-in-the-making. Also included, somewhat bathetically, are anecdotes from Vallejo’s own early life. She describes herself as a swotty girl at school, whom the other kids bullied for knowing too many words. Later, that bookishness becomes its own pleasure when, as a graduate student in Oxford, she encounters the quaint protocols of the Bodleian.
Just when you fear this might be getting self-indulgent, Vallejo pulls out something exquisite. She tells the story, for example, of how in the 1990s she was in a secondhand bookshop with her father when he discovered, to his excitement, a copy of Don Quixote that had been printed in such a way that the second chapter consisted of a passage from Marx’s Das Kapital. It was the sort of book-within-a-book familiar to him from the terrible Franco decades, when clandestine, censor-dodging reading was the sort that really mattered.
Papyrus is situated firmly at the confluence of three popular publishing trends. The first is for book history – that somewhat obscure and academic subject that has recently been given a new lease of life through the accessible work of Christopher de Hamel and Emma Smith, among others. Then there is what might be called the “what the classics did for us” genre, which extends from popular books on stoicism to Mary Beard’s public-facing histories of Rome, via creative interventions from Pat Barker, who rewrote the Iliad from a woman’s point of view.
Finally there is the biblio-memoir, in which a bookish author tells how her life has been defined and sustained by her love of reading another’s work. All of which means that Papyrus had a fair gust of wind behind it when it was published in Spain in 2019, and quickly became a sensation. Here it is beautifully translated into English by Charlotte Whittle, who is able to convey both Vallejo’s passionate narrative presence and her synthesising intelligence.
• Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World, translated by Charlotte Whittle, is published by Hodder (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply