“So okay― there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You’ve blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
This is obviously a memoir written by a chef and it is a book about food and cooking. I love food memoirs and that is reason enough to pick up this book. But what makes it particularly interesting is the chef in question.
Marcus Samuelsson is an unusually talented chef who has led an interesting life. He was born in Ethiopia, adopted and raised in Sweden and he now lives and cooks in America. His idea and experience of food has to be fascinating.
To quote the publisher:
This book is a love letter to food and family in all its manifestations. Yes, Chef chronicles Samuelsson’s journey, from his grandmother’s kitchen in Sweden to his arrival in New York City, where his outsize talent and ambition finally come together at Aquavit, earning him a New York Times three-star rating at the age of twenty-four.
Since then, there have been White House state dinners, career crises, reality show triumphs, and, most important, the opening of Red Rooster in Harlem. At Red Rooster, Samuelsson has fulfilled his dream of creating a truly diverse, multiracial dining room—a place where presidents rub elbows with jazz musicians, aspiring artists, and bus drivers. It is a place where an orphan from Ethiopia, raised in Sweden and living in America, can feel at home.
This is the third in the series of memoirs about his life in Provence that Peter Mayle has written. It has all the spirit and the flavour of his earlier books. It is perhaps a bit special because it was written a few months after Mayle and his wife returned to Provence after a four year long stay (hiatus? Mayle might actually call it exile) in the US.
So it is written with all the fervour of a man who is incredibly happy to be back in his beloved home. As far as Mayle is concerned, Provence is home. He says and I quote:
“…we did our best to adapt. And yet there was something missing. Or rather, an entire spectrum of sights and sounds and smells and sensations that we had taken for granted in Provence, from the smell of thyme in the fields to the swirl and jostle of Sunday morning markets. Very few weeks went by without a twinge of what I can best describe as homesickness.”
“Provence is still beautiful. Vast areas of it are still wild and empty. Peace and silence, which have become endangered commodities in the modern world, are still available. The old men still play their endless games of boules. The markets are as colourful and abundant as ever. There is room to breathe and the air is clean.”
There are stories here about planting olives, trying to grow truffles, the glories of olive oil, how and why the people of Provence are as long lived as they are, all the lazy and seriously enjoyable things you can do in Provence (not for the serious tourist), life in a typical Provencal village, the art of creating perfumes, the importance of the perfect corkscrew and so on. There are of course, several descriptions of wonderful meals and extraordinary restaurants.
It is the sort of writing that we have come to expect from Peter Mayle, stories and observations about the little things in life, the small pleasures and the everyday joys. He writes lovingly about Provence and its people, even when he’s poking fun at them. This is a man who is happy. It seems to take a particular place to make him so, but he has found it and Provence has found him.
Of the three memoirs, A Year in Provence continues to be my favourite, but the quality of writing in this book is far superior. The narration is tighter, the stories are told in a more engaging fashion and the open eyed wonder that comes through the first book has been replaced by a warmer, deeper appreciation of life in his beloved Provence.
It was in June of 1868, that the typewriter was patented by Christopher Latham Sholes. It only had capital letters and it took up as much room as a large table. Typewriters were slow sellers at first, but Mark Twain bought one almost as soon as they came out, and in 1883 Twain sent the manuscript of his book Life on the Mississippi to his publisher in typed form, the first author ever to do so.
Sholes’ machine was not the first typewriter. It wasn’t even the first typewriter to receive a patent. But it was the first typewriter to have actual practical value for the individual, so it became the first machine to be mass-produced. After receiving his patent, Sholes licensed it to Remington & Sons. The first commercial typewriter, the Remington Model 1, hit the shelves in 1873.
The earliest typewriter keyboard resembled a piano and was built with an alphabetical arrangement of 28 keys. It was assumed that this would be the most efficient arrangement. Anyone who used the typewriter would know where to find each letter without having to look for it and typing speed would be increased.
So why did the typewriter switch to the qwerty layout that we all use today? There are two very different theories about this. One story goes that with the old alphabetical typewriter, the keys tended to get stuck whenever a user typed a succession of letters whose type bars were near each other. So Sholes redesigned the arrangement to separate the most common sequences of letters like “th” or “he”. In theory then, the QWERTY system should maximize the separation of common letter pairings. But the idea doesn’t quite hold when you consider that “er” is the fourth most common letter pairing in the English language.
The other story says that the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. This theory suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators.
Whatever the reason for its creation, the qwerty keyboard was quickly accepted. Sholes took out a patent for the qwerty layout in 1878. When the first generation of computer keyboards emerged, there was no longer any technical reason to use the qwerty layout…computers don’t get jammed. But against this was the fact that millions of people had learned to type on QWERTY keyboards and the layout was familiar.
So the QWERTY stayed and we continue to use it not just in computers, but even on tablets and smart phones…a 136 years after it was created.
“When writing a novel, that’s pretty much entirely what life turns into: ‘House burned down. Car stolen. Cat exploded. Did 1500 easy words, so all in all it was a pretty good day.”
Hans Christian Anderson is the man who created Cinderella, The Little Mermaid, Thumbelina,
The Ugly Duckling and many other beloved fairy tales which have become a part of our collective consciousness. His stories have been translated into 125 languages and are read around the world.
But they were not particularly well received when they were first published. Andersen was in fact, recognised as a novelist and a travel writer before he came to be known for his fairy tales.
His first, successful book was The Improvisatore. It is an autobiographical novel, reflecting Andersen’s travels in Italy in 1833 and it reveals much about his own life and aspirations as experienced by Antonio, the novel’s principal character.
Considered by some to be the first modern European novel, it was published by Reitzels Forlag in 1835. It was an immediate success. It was published in Germany the following year and, in France three years later. For many years, The Improvisatore was the most widely read of all of Andersen’s works.
In 1851, he published to wide acclaim
In Sweden, a volume of travel sketches. A keen traveler, Andersen published several other travelogues: Shadow Pictures of a Journey to the Harz, Swiss Saxony, A Poet’s Bazaar, In Spain, and A Visit to Portugal.
In his travelogues, Andersen paid heed to some of the contemporary conventions of travel writing, but he manipulated the genre to suit his own purposes.
Each of his travelogues combines documentary and descriptive accounts of the sights he saw with more philosophical passages on topics such as being an author, immortality, and the role of fiction in a travelogue.
But it’s for his three collections of fairy tales that he is remembered today. Andersen wrote in the everyday language of the common Danish people, and he refused to talk down to children or shelter them from the dark and scary.
Later translators cut out some of the scarier parts and gave the tales happy endings, and so we think of them as lighthearted and innocent, but that was not originally the case.
Sources : Writer’s almanac
“The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.”
These are lines from what has to be one of the best known poems ever written. Published in 1923, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, continues to resonate with readers even today. It was first published in The New Republic magazine. It was Frost’s favourite of his own poems, and he called it “my best bid for remembrance.” Though it’s a poem about winter, Frost wrote the first draft on a warm morning in the middle of June. He’d stayed up the night before working on a long and difficult poem called New Hampshire.
It was morning when he finally finished it. Feeling relieved he went outside and watched the sunrise. While he was outside, he suddenly got an idea for a new poem. So he rushed back inside his house and wrote Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening in just a few minutes. He said he wrote most of the poem almost without lifting his pen off the page. He said, “It was as if I’d had a hallucination.” He struggled with the ending, until he decided to repeat the famous last line, “And miles to go before I sleep.”
Sources : Writer’s almanac
Astounding Stories was one of the most popular science fiction magazines in America in the 1930’s. It was a pulp magazine which published stories that were action packed and fantastic, though they often had little to do with real science.
A state of affairs that changed when John W Campbell took over as the editor of the magazine in 1937. Campbell changed the name of the magazine to Astounding Science-Fiction (and later to Analog), and he transformed it. He wanted to change its reputation from that of a pulp fiction publication to one based on real science.
He recruited and championed writers like Isaac Asimov, A.E. van Vogt, Robert A. Heinlein, and Theodore Sturgeon. He insisted that the stories published in the magazine should have convincing science as well as convincing characters. He preferred uncomfortable ideas that would push readers, and he had no qualms insisting that his writers completely change the endings of stories if he didn’t like them.
Isaac Asimov said of Campbell that, “What he wanted were people who would write stories in which the science was realistic. Not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t go out into the blue yonder, not realistic in the sense that they couldn’t extrapolate wildly, but realistic in the sense that people who worked in science resembled people who actually worked in science. That scientists acted the way scientists do, that engineers acted the way engineers do — and in short, that the scientific culture be represented accurately.”
According to Brian Aldiss, Campbell, “forced his writers to think much harder about what they were trying to say, and clamped down on the Gosh-wowery.”
His training as a scientist also aided his stable of authors, many of whom would receive notations back with their manuscripts that helped with the technical side of the fiction. No longer satisfied with gadgetry and action per se, Campbell demanded that his writers try to think about how science and technology might really develop in the future-and, most importantly, how those changes would affect the lives of human beings.
This new sophistication soon made Astounding Science Fiction the undisputed leader in the field, and Campbell began to think the old title was too “sensational” to reflect what the magazine was actually doing. He chose Analog in part because he thought of each story as an “analog simulation” of a possible future, and in part because of the close analogy he saw between the imagined science in the stories he was publishing and the real science being done in laboratories around the world.
One of the key resources that Campbell was able to draw upon was a new generation of authors who had grown up reading the science fiction stories from the pulp era. They didn’t have to define the genre that they worked in: Within the long boundaries of the genre, they were able to create and respond to other stories. With the focus on realism over the sensational, Campbell had set the tone for the stories that would come over the next several decades.
As of 2013, Analog Science Fiction and Fact is the longest running continuously published magazine of its genre
Analog science fiction website.
I bought a book last night…Encore Provence by Peter Mayle. It is the only one of his memoirs that I haven’t read. It is the third in the series that began with A Year in Provence which was published back in 1989. I love travel books and memoirs of all shades and Peter Mayle is by far my favourite writer of both genres. I’m not a big fan of his novels, but his memoirs are delicious.
I couldn’t wait to get into my new book. So what did I do? I put it aside and I picked up A Year In Provence (I have already read it several times, but not in the last three or more years) and I started at the beginning. And remarkably, it feels every bit as fresh and delightful as did the first time around.
I read A Year in Provence a long time ago and like millions of readers around the world, I fell hopelessly in love with Provence and Mayle’s lighthearted account of his life there. I was two pages into that first book and I was hooked. Mayle talks about how he and his wife finally made the decision to move to Provence, a place that they had long been dreaming about living in and he says:
“… And now, somewhat to our surprise, we had done it. We had committed ourselves. We had bought a house, taken French lessons, said our goodbyes, shipped over our two dogs and become foreigners. In the end, it had happened quickly-almost impulsively- because of the house. We saw it one afternoon and had mentally moved in by dinner…”
“It was a mas, or farmhouse, built from local stone which two hundred years of wind and sun had weathered to a colour somewhere between pale honey and pale grey… Attached to the back of the house was an enclosed courtyard…There were three wells, there were established shade trees and slim green cypresses, hedges of Rosemary, a giant almond tree. In the afternoon sun, with the wooden shutters half closed like sleepy eyelids, it was irresistible.”
And from that point on, so was the book and it’s charming author. There is an ease in Mayle’s writing and a certain whimsy. He is clearly enamoured of Provence and he’s charmed and amused by the people and the customs and it all comes through in his writing.
He is a gifted story teller with an eye for detail and an ability to write the most evocative prose, particularly while describing the beauty of his adopted home:
“The Luberon mountains rise up immediately behind the house to a high point of of nearly 3,500 feet and run in deep folds for about forty miles from west to east. Cedars and Pines and scrub oak keep them perpetually green and provide for cover for boar and rabbits and game birds. Wild flowers, thyme, lavender and mushrooms grow between the rocks and under the trees, and from the summit on a clear day the view is of the Basses-Alpes on one side and the Mediterranean on the other.”
And who can blame him, considering that Provence, the part of it that he lives in, looks like this:
But it isn’t just the beauty of the place, it is the sheer quality of life that comes from living in the countryside, where the pace of life is slow and there is time to appreciate the good things in life, like a morning spent at the market, an evening at the cafe watching a game of boules, a dinner at a friends house, a walk through the mountains, a wine tasting, a spectacular meal at a restaurant in the middle of nowhere… and France, particularly Provence seems to have an abundance of the good things. In the end, what appeals to me the most in Mayle’s writing is the sheer joy in life that comes through the pages of his books.
“I am the very model of a modern Major-General,
I’ve information vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I know the kings of England, and I quote the fights historical
From Marathon to Waterloo, in order categorical;
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters mathematical,
I understand equations, both the simple and quadratical,
About binomial theorem I’m teeming with a lot o’ news,
With many cheerful facts about the square of the hypotenuse.”
That’s Sir W S Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame. The two of them wrote 14 comic operas; Gilbert was the librettist, and Sir Arthur Sullivan composed the music. The operas, which lampooned hot topics of the Victorian era, are still widely popular even though the barbs are dated and modern audiences miss most of the references; Sir Gilbert’s wordplay is so skillful that no greater knowledge of context is necessary.
Gilbert and Sullivan met in 1870, and they began collaborating the following year. Their working relationship was often strained because they had very different personalities and different ambitions. Gilbert, who was often contentious and prickly, poked fun at the upper classes. Sullivan, who avoided conflict whenever possible, longed to be accepted by them.
They also argued because they each felt the other’s work was given more prominence. Gilbert favored absurd stories where Sullivan preferred more genuine emotion and realism. They nevertheless managed to produce such enduring favorites as H.M.S. Pinafore (1878), The Pirates of Penzance (1879), and The Mikado (1885).
This is a book about a book, De Rerum Natura or On the Nature of Things written by Titus Lucretius Carus over 2,000 years ago. Lucretius was born nearly a century before Christ and nothing much is known about him. He was an accomplished poet; he lived during the first century BC and he was devoted to the teachings of Epicurus all of which he wrote eloquently about in his magnificent poem, De Rerum Natura.
The Swerve is an account of the rediscovery of this poem after it had been forgotten for centuries after the birth of Christ and the revolutionary impact it had on the writers, artists and scientists of the time when it was discovered in a monastery in 1417. This epic poem is presented in six books and it undertakes a full and completely naturalistic explanation of the physical origin, structure, and destiny of the universe. Included in it are ideas such as the atomic structure of matter and the emergence and evolution of life forms over the millennia.
On the Nature of Things laid out what is a strikingly modern understanding of the world. Every page reflected a core scientific vision—a vision of atoms moving constantly in an infinite universe, coming together to form first one thing and then another. The poem claimed that atoms are at the core of everything in the universe, from the trees to the oceans to the animals to the stars to human beings. It claimed that there is no such thing as an afterlife, no heaven or hell and that it is foolish to believe in an all powerful, all seeing God who is so minutely concerned with human affairs that he sees everything we do and will eventually reward us or punish us for it.
All of these ideas were of course, considered heresy back in the 15th century and the Church tried its best to denounce Lucretius and to prevent the circulation of his epic poem. But despite their best efforts the poem was copied again and again and it was circulated fairly widely. The ideas in the poem inspired the Renaissance. It influenced artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.
That, briefly, is the story behind this book. It is interesting in itself, but it becomes more so in the hands of Stephen Greenblatt who takes a tremendous amount of information and brings it all together in a very engaging narrative. Despite the wealth of information here and the many different threads of the same story, the narrative never gets dense or heavy.
Greenblatt paints a vivid picture of pre-rennaisance Europe. There is a reason why that period is referred to as the dark ages. It was a time when every word and every thought had to be censored and where intellectual curiosity was deemed a crime…The author writes about it all very casually and that more than anything else, makes it a chilling portrait.
We all know that Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and that Galileo was persecuted for stating that the Earth is not the centre of the universe. All of that is brought to life vividly here. And when taken against the thought of all the knowledge and wisdom of ancient Greece and Rome that was lost for over a thousand years and had to be painstakingly learned and rediscovered …it is almost as if the world went backwards for a thousand years before it found its way again.
I knew all of this already, but Stephen Greenblatt paints such a vivid picture of the people and the time that I found myself feeling an acute sense of loss.
I took my time in reading this book, forcing myself to go slow because I didn’t want to miss anything. But much as I learned, it made me want to learn more…both about ancient Greece and Rome and about the Renaissance. This is a wonderful book and must read for anyone interested in history.
Wishlist Wednesday is a meme hosted by Pen to Paper, where bloggers get the chance to show which books they’ve added to their wishlist this week.
This is to some extent a biography of E M Foster, but the narrative is centered around the writing of A Passage to India, which is widely considered to be Foster’s greatest work. The title of this book is drawn form Foster’s last, unfinished novel.
In 1912, the SS Birmingham approaches India. On board is Edward Morgan Forster, novelist and man of letters, who is embarking on a journey of discovery. As Morgan stands on deck, the promise of a strange new future begins to take shape before his eyes. The seeds of a story start to gather at the corner of his mind: a sense of impending menace, lust in close confines, under a hot, empty sky.
It will be another twelve years, and a second time spent in India, before A Passage to India, E. M. Forster’s great work of literature, is published. During these years, Morgan will come to a profound understanding of himself as a man, and of the infinite subtleties and complexity of human nature, bringing these great insights to bear in his remarkable novel.
Arctic Summer is a fictional exploration of the life and times of one of Britain’s finest novelists, his struggle to find a way of living and being, and a stunningly vivid evocation of the mysterious alchemy of the creative process.
I haven’t read A passage to India. I was unfortunate enough to encounter Foster in literature class. We read Howard’s End in my second year of college and I hated it. It was not the fault of the novel, it was just reading it in class that killed it for me (I had the same response to Emma. I couldn’t read it for years after I left college. It is still my least favourite Austen.)
Getting back to Arctic Summer, I heard an interview with Damon Galgut on the BBC and I was intrigued. I am drawn to biographies and memoirs anyway, but this one seems a bit special, because it is as much a biography of a book as it is of the man who wrote it.
Often referred to as the “Father of Science Fiction,” Jules Verne wrote his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon, at the age of 35. He went on to be the second most translated author of all time, writing books about a variety of innovations and technological advancements years before they were practical realities.
Jules Verne was born on February 8, 1828, in the city of Nantes, France, a busy maritime port city. There, Verne was exposed to schooners and ships departing and arriving, sparking his imagination for travel and adventure. While attending boarding school, he began to capture his imagination in short stories and poetry. After Verne left boarding school, his father sent him to Paris to study law.
While in Paris, instead of immersing himself in the law, Verne found himself attracted to the theater, and after obtaining his law degree and setting up a practice in 1850, he began writing numerous plays, dramas and operettas.
His plays got him attention but they did not make him enough money to live comfortably. So Verne became a stockbroker to support himself. The job meant little to him, but it provided him with enough financial stability to marry Honorine de Viane, a young widow with two daughters, in 1857.
Verne then began to write novels but his initial efforts were all rejected. His luck changed when he made the acquaintance of editor and publisher Jules Hetzel, who would become Verne’s champion, Verne’s literary career truly began, with the 1863 publication of Five Weeks in a Balloon (serialized in Hetzel’s Magazine d’Éducation et de Récréation, as most of his works were). The book garnered wide acclaim, but poor sales.
Regardless of the revenue created by the book, Verne knew that he had finally found his place in the world. He then immersed himself in his work with unbridled enthusiasm, and over the course of the next ten years, he would create many of his classic novels.
In all, Verne wrote more than 70 books and conjured hundreds of memorable characters and countless innovations years before their time, including the submarine, space travel, terrestrial flight and deep-sea exploration.
His works of imagination, and the innovations and inventions contained within, have appeared in countless forms, from motion pictures to the stage, to television and his writings on scientific endeavors have sparked the imaginations of writers, scientists and inventors for over a century.
“I think I owe my success [as a journalist] to having listened respectfully and rather bashfully to the very best advice, given by all the best journalists who had achieved the best sort of success in journalism; and then going away and doing the exact opposite. . . I have a notion that the real advice I could give to a young journalist is simply this: to write an article for the Sporting Times and one for the Church Times and put them in the wrong envelopes. . . What is really the matter with almost every paper, is that it is much too full of things suitable to the paper.”
– G.K. Chesterton
That is just one example of Chesterton’s refreshing sense of humour. A lot of his writing is suffused with mischief and a certain unwillingness to be serious that makes him a delight to read. He says in the introduction to one of his books, a collection of essays called All things Considered that “Their (the essays in the book) chief vice is that so many of them are serious because I had no time to make them flippant. It is so easy to be solemn, so hard to be frivolous.”
Chesterton (1874-1936) was a prolific English critic and author of verse, essays, novels, and short stories.
He was a witty, intelligent, and insightful defender of the poor, the downtrodden, the weak, and especially of the family. He loved good beer, good wine, and good cigars. He wrote in just about every genre: history, biography, novels, poetry, short stories, apologetics and theology, economic works, and more.
As a literary critic, Chesterton was without parallel. His biography of Charles Dickens is credited with sparking the Dickens revival in London in the early 20th century. His biography of St. Thomas Aquinas was called the best book on St. Thomas ever written, by no less than Etienne Gilson, the 20th century’s greatest Thomistic scholar.
His books Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man are considered the 20th century’s finest works of Christian and Catholic apologetics. And audiences still delight in the adventures of Chesterton’s priest sleuth, Father Brown, as well as such timeless novels as The Man Who Was Thursday and The Napoleon of Notting Hill.
Despite the large number of books he published, Chesterton considered himself to be primarily a journalist. During his lifetime, he published literally thousands of essays in newspapers and journals on both sides of the Atlantic, including the Illustrated London News, the Daily News, his own newspaper, G.K’s Weekly, and the New York American. These essays are as fresh, invigorating, and relevant today as when they were first published.
“Gold, silver, jewels,10 purple garments, houses built of marble, groomed estates, pious paintings, caparisoned steeds, and other things of this kind offer a mutable and superficial pleasure; books give delight to the very marrow of one’s bones. They speak to us, consult with us, and join with us in a living and intense intimacy.”
This is not something I do, really, because books for me are comfort and I hate tinkering with that. But there is a case to be made for reading outside your comfort zone. It is entirely possible to pick up a book that you wouldn’t normally read and end up loving it. How else do we discover new writers and new perspectives on life, stories and characters. So maybe this is an exercise that we should all indulge in every once in a while.
My comfort zone can be summed up as biography-memoir-history-science-travel with an occasional dose of fantasy, science fiction and the classics. It is a fairly broad area of reading, as you can see, but it is mostly non-fiction. I should read a bit of fiction every now and then, particularly contemporary fiction.
Ever since I started this blog, I have been reading other book blogs, listening to podcasts about books and reading and generally trying to be more aware of all the new books that are being written instead of following my time honoured policy of staying in the past.
And I have found that there is a lot of interesting fiction being written these days. There seem to be several new novels that don’t stick to the old rules and the old genres. So many of them have the sort of characters or plots that I have never come across before and I am intrigued. I have been looking these books up and adding them to my TBR pile. I may not like them, in which case I will abandon them without a qualm, but I do want to try reading a few of them.
The only one of these that I have read so far this year, is The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion. It is a romantic story and it reads almost like a rom-com and it is as such, way out of my comfort zone. I only picked it up because the character of the protagonist is so very interesting and I’m glad I did, I enjoyed the book. I didn’t love it, but I liked it enough to enjoy reading it.
So maybe I should try reading a few more contemporary novels.
Musing Mondays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.
“What a gulf between impression and expression! That’s our ironic fate—to have Shakespearean feelings and (unless by some billion-to-one chance we happen to be Shakespeare) to talk about them like automobile salesmen or teen-agers or college professors. We practice alchemy in reverse—touch gold and it turns into lead; touch the pure lyrics of experience, and they turn into the verbal equivalents of tripe and hogwash.”
2300 years ago, Alexander the Great, Aristotle’s pupil, brought his dream of culture and conquest, of uniting the world and launching a new era to the timeless land of Egypt. Alexander selected the site for a new capital: Alexandria.
His successors in Egypt, the Ptolemies, built Alexandria, and made it the intellectual capital of the world. Its lighthouse, the Pharos, was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. But a greater legacy was the Ancient Library of Alexandria.
Launched in 288 BC by Ptolemy I (Soter) under the guidance of Demetrius of Phaleron, the temple to the muses, or Mouseion (in greek), or museum (in latin) was part academy, part research center, and part library. The great thinkers of the age, scientists, mathematicians, poets from all civilizations came to study and exchange ideas.
As many as 700,000 scrolls, the equivalent of more than 100,000 modern printed books, filled the shelves. The library was open to scholars from all cultures. Girls and boys studied regularly at the Ancient Library. It was while living and working here that
Aristarchus realised and declared that the earth revolves around the sun, a full 1800 years before Copernicus;
Eratosthenes proved that the earth was spherical and calculated its circumference with amazing accuracy, 1700 years before Columbus sailed on his epic voyage
Hipparchus established the first atlas of the stars and calculated the length of the solar year accurately to within 6.5 minutes
Callimachus the poet described the texts in the library organized by subject and author, becoming the father of library science,
Euclid wrote his elements of geometry, the basic text studied in schools all over the world even now
Herophylus identified the brain as the controlling organ of the body and launched a new era of medicine
Manetho chronicled the pharaohs and organized our history into the dynasties we use to this day.
Zenodotus and the grammarians established the basics of literary scholarship with their meticulous definition of the Homerian text for the Iliad and the Odyssey
And the list of great names and great achievements goes on and on…
Diophantes, Appolonius of Perga, Heron and visiting scholars such as Archimedes…
They and many others were all members of that amazing community of scholars, which mapped the heavens, organized the calendar, established the foundations of science and pushed the boundaries of our knowledge.
They opened up the cultures of the world, established a true dialogue of civilizations. Indeed, it was at the ancient Library of Alexandria that 72 specialists first translated The Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek (the famous Septuagint).
Together these scholars promoted rationality, tolerance and understanding and organized universal knowledge. For over six centuries the ancient Library of Alexandria epitomized the zenith of learning, as later scholars, such Claudius Ptolemy and Dioscoredes built on that explosion of knowledge and added their contributions.
The Library of Alexandria was located in at least three buildings: (i) the original Muesum in the royal district of the city, (ii) the additional building mostly for book storage, located on the harbor, and (iii) the “daughter Library” located in the Serapeum, the temple to Serapis, cult god of Alexandria. The Serapeum was located in the southwest part of the city, the popular quarter
To this day it symbolizes the noblest aspirations of the human mind, global ecumenism, and the greatest achievements of the intellect.
The Library disappeared slowly, suffering a slow decline from the time of Caesar and Cleopatra. Indeed, the first disaster was in 48 B.C., when the part of the library located at the harbor was accidentally set afire during the Alexandrian war of Julius Caesar.
However, Marc Anthony gave Cleopatra the 200,000 scrolls of Pergamon, to make up for the losses. Yet, subsequent upheavals within the Roman Empire resulted in the gradual neglect and ultimate destruction of the library.
Roman armies came to Alexandria to “restore order several times between 200 and 300 AD, and it was on one of those occasions, (probably the campaign of Aurelius in 272 AD) that the entire royal quarter and the original Museum were destroyed.
Christianity was brought to Africa through Alexandria by St. Marc in the first century AD, and it was followed by merciless and brutal persecution of the Christians by the Romans in the first three centuries.
Persecution ceased with the conversion of Constantine the Great, but schisms erupted in the church. Tensions were running high. In 391 AD Emperor Theodosius issued a decree banning all religions other than Christianity and Christian Groups under Bishop Theophilus burnt the Serapeum in 391 AD. This was the end of the ancient library as a public institution.
What remained were the scholars in an uneasy co-existence with an increasingly militant Christian mob.Tragedy struck in 415 AD when Hypatia, one of the most respected scholars of her time, the first woman to study and master mathematics and astronomy, a neo-Platonist philosopher and charismatic orator, was declared a witch and brutally murdered by the mob. She became the first martyr to science.
Thus by 400 A.D. the Library had vanished, and the era of Alexandrian scholarship came to an end.
But the memory of the ancient Library of Alexandria lived on and continued to inspire scholars and humanists everywhere.
In 2002 the Egyptian government inaugurated a new library, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, near the site of the ancient institution.
Source: Ishmael Serageldin
Ismail Serageldin is the Founding Director of The Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), the new Library of Alexandria, inaugurated in 2002.