The Dewey decimal system of cataloguing and its modern successors are relatively new, and they sometimes seem inadequate as ways of organizing knowledge in ever-changing fields of study. But the idea of bringing order to collections of written material is an ancient one, as Lionel Casson writes in this lucid survey of bibliophilia in the ancient Mediterranean. Among the earliest examples of written material that we have are lists of library holdings, clay tablets from Mesopotamia that archive commercial inventories, scholarly texts, and a surprising number of works on witchcraft and remedies against it.
Ancient libraries grew, Casson writes, by many means: by peaceful trade, as when book-hungry Romans spent extravagant sums on Greek texts made in southern Italy; by conquest, as when the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal looted the libraries of his ancient rival Babylon, carting the contents to his capital of Nineveh; and by fiat, as when the Egyptian pharaohs appropriated private collections to round out their own. Those libraries nourished the great philosophers and writers of old, shaping world culture into our own time. But, as Casson ably shows, the enemies of books are many, among them floods, fires, insects, and intolerance. As it is today, so it was in the past, and contending empires and ideologies too often expressed themselves by sacking and burning the collections of their enemies--by reason of which we have only a few of the works that engaged readers in the distant past.
Casson's slender book enhances our understanding of the role of books and their collectors in the ancient world, and bibliophiles and historians alike will find much of value in its pages. --Gregory McNamee
From Publishers Weekly
This, according to the author (Travel in the Ancient World; etc.), "is the first full-scale study of libraries in the ancient world." This alone will make the book very attractive to a readership well beyond those with professional interests in the ancient world. And yet the book's title sells its contents short since it is really about a great deal more than the curatorship of the written word through its very specialized beginnings in the Near East c. 3000 B. C. until the collapse of cities in the Western Roman world. Casson's book is not limited to where and when important libraries existed; it offers a social history transcending the idea of a library as we know it. Casson discusses literacy in the ancient world; the techniques of production and the materials from which books were made (clay tablets in the oldest repositories in the Near East; papyrus and parchment in the West); trade in books; the centrality of libraries as the predecessors of modern universities and research institutions; the organization of Greco-Roman libraries, which continues, necessarily modified, in today's libraries; the differences and intersections among royal, private and public libraries; the kinds of books favored by libraries and even observations on the concept of the rare book in antiquity. Detailed consideration of the architectural elements of ancient libraries (what did these libraries look like? Where and how were books stored? How were reading rooms arranged?) makes the book as appealing to the archeologist as the bibliophile.
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