In her preface, author Irene Vallejo asks:
“Why did books first appear? What is the secret history of efforts to reproduce or destroy them? What was lost along the way, and what was saved? Why have some of them become classics? How much has succumbed to the jaws of time, the talons of fire, the poison of water? Which books have been burnt in rage, and which have been copied with the greatest passion? Are they one and the same?”
Vallejo loves books. She loves discussing Western literature. She loves the ancient Greeks while acknowledging they were imperfect. They kept slaves and sequestered respectable women. Working women had more freedom, but they were not respectable.
Vallejo’s deep dislikes include the Romans and the United States. Part Two of her book, “The Road to Rome,” begins with a chapter titled “A City with a Bad Reputation.” The opening paragraph describes one of Rome’s founding myths, where Romulus kills his brother Remus for jumping over the wall he built around the city. “So perish everyone that shall hereafter leap over my wall!” Romulus is supposed to cry.
“He thus set a useful precedent for future foreign policy in Rome,” writes Vallejo, “which, having attacked, would always excuse itself by alleging a prior aggressive or illegal act by the other party.”
I found this book pleasant to read at times. It was a lot of fun catching mentions of books I’d read and hardly thought about for years. (“Oh, yeah. That was a great book.”) The single greatest drawback was the author’s discursive style. That is, she writes all around the mulberry bush. It brought to mind Mark Twain’s “The Story of the Old Ram.” They differ in that Vallejo does eventually get to her point.
Just the same, my attention wandered too often down different paths before I reached the final destination. Her manner of mentioning things—generally without further discussion—let my imagination take over. At times, I dozed off. By the time the chapter ended, I was left wondering—was that what she was talking about?
Few of the chapters last more than two pages. Their brevity is a mercy; however, each chapter reads more like an independent essay than part of a book. This makes for tiresome reading regardless of the topic.
One of the longer chapters dealt with “dangerous” books. I would include things like The Turner Diaries, which might not be readily available in the author’s native Spain. So much the better for the Spanish.
She begins her list of dangerous books with Wolfgang Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther, which inspired suicides when it appeared in the late 18th century. I’ve read The Sorrows of Young Werther. While I claim no expertise on the matter, I doubt it leads anyone to kill themselves out of unrequited love these days.
She next lists The Virgin Suicides, which involves a suicide pact; H.P. Lovecraft’s non-existent Necronomicon—said to contain black magic no one can endure and encourage real-life fraud (“sure I have it, m’boy. That’ll $19.95 plus shipping and handling.”); and the lost book central to the murders in The Name of the Rose.
The author then discusses “book bombs, volumes containing powerful explosives intended to kill the recipient when they are opened.”
I don’t say no one has ever died by a “book bomb.” We humans are ingenious in the ways we make our fellow humans suffer. However, the author then states, “The White House receives hundreds of book bombs a year, which are deactivated by security teams.”
She does not offer a source for this claim in her footnotes, and I cannot find anything online on the topic. I feel safe enough calling this bullshit.
Overall, this book was a disappointment. On the one hand, reading it was like talking to a fellow book nerd. That was fun. Some things just click. Other things just don’t. Because I had such a hard time reading this and for bullshit (no other word), I cannot recommend it. It was such a letdown. I really wanted to like this book.
Title: Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World
Author: Irene Vallejo trans. Charlotte Whittle
First published: 2019; English trans 2022