August 25, 2003

Libraries in the Ancient World

The first sentence of this book is a marvel: "This book is the first full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world."

Think about that. People have been talking about libraries since there were libraries. People have been talking about Ancient Libraries since the Renaissance -- and the ancients talked about them, too. Nobody's written a book, collecting what we know, Until now.

I miss working in a field where, if someone makes a claim like this, you can take it to the bank.

Here, neatly laid out for us, is everything we know about libraries West of the Ganges and East of the Ocean, from the invention of writing to the development of the Christian monastery. Casson's volume is compact, written with simplicity, directness, and charm. It's got the traditional anxiety about footnotes -- classicists are going to love hypertextual writing once they get the hang of it -- and the appendices are therefore too short for amateurs like me, who don't have ready access to a first class library and to the four modern (and two ancient) languages without which, we were taught, one never leaves the house.