Written by a doctor of Classics who has distinguished herself in the field of popularization, Infinity in a Reed is a beautiful and well-conceived book that achieves its purpose of telling a story of many centuries in a few hundred pages, combining sensitivity and the criterion with the narrative capacity and an idea of pedagogy that does not lower the subject matter. Its originality is evident in the digressive structure , with occasional appeals to the reader, whom Irene Vallejo addresses in the second person, and in the frequent use of reflections and contemporary references.that provide retrospective light. The latter is not without its risks, as other less happy and fruitful attempts prove, and the author’s talent becomes especially visible when she introduces her own experiences –for example, when dealing with her experiences in the capricious and intricate universe of Oxford or of her memories as a child on the occasion of the ignominious destruction of the Sarajevo Library , which filled the sky of the besieged city with melancholy and black butterflies– or interpolates numerous episodes into the narrative –far removed in time, but not in spirit – of the long itinerary that goes back to the legendary neapolis founded by Alexander next to the Nile delta.
The book is an excellent example of how an interest in Antiquity can be aroused in readers
. Vallejo’s passionate essay deals with the invention of books, as the subtitle announces, but it is also a history of Hellenism that through trade, education and miscegenation led the inhabited world to a “primitive globalization”, of reading and its magical quality to transmit the legacy of generations, of lovers and enemies of literature and knowledge, of the ways in which censorship tried to hinder the spread of dangerous ideas, of the hard work of the scribes who preserved the wisdom of the ancientsbefore the invention of the printing press, of the libraries where its promoters dreamed of accumulating –and they succeeded, due to contemporary testimonies, to a not insignificant extent– the teachings of humanity in all known languages. The beautiful image of the title refers to the papyrus reed as the material –a “strategic good”, in the same way as the tanned skin or “the coltan of our smart phones”– that made possible the decisive passage of the fragile and ephemeral tablets of clay to rolls or volumes, the usual support for writing until the late extension of parchment codices.
Facing oblivion and linguistic barriers, the Alexandrians made us cosmopolitan and memorious
The secular and fascinating history ofLibrary of Alexandria and the associated Museum , which was the first research center made up of professionals and would lay the foundations, drawn from the then revolutionary Aristotelian philosophy , from philology and other disciplines, by trying to systematize in all its vast scope “the paths of the invention and the routes of memory”, is the center of gravity of the essay, from which many other related stories start. We cover in particular the path that goes from Demetrio de Falero , the first librarian, to the three documented destructions, attributed in the last two cases to Christian fanatics – during the riots that led to the murder of Hypatia– and then to the horsemen of the first Islam, according to a sequence that is not entirely clear. Both in the founding stage of the Ptolemies , when Egypt preserved its autonomy as a Hellenistic kingdom, and in the later Roman period, with the country of the pharaohs already attached to the Empire, the Alexandrian institutions were the true beacon – the image is inevitable, being the city that housed the seventh wonder – from which the ancient culture radiated.
As a popular book, El infinity en un reed is an excellent example of the way in which unprejudiced specialists can arouse interest in Antiquity in non-academic readers, but Vallejo’s story, for the aforementioned reasons and others such as agility of the discourse, his ease when chaining or superimposing perspectives or his desire to give prominence to the anonymous characters of History , acquires a literary dimension that transcends mere retelling. And it also does it for its underlying intention. Confronting oblivion, the infertile chauvinist mentality and multiple language barriers, the Alexandrian scholarsthey made us “translators, cosmopolitans, memorists”. Although in modern European languages the word derives from the Greek papyros, paper itself did not exist in the ancient world, which would come later from China, but the etymology must be assumed when the author speaks of a “paper homeland for the stateless.” of all times”. With or without printed media, we belong to it and we continue to live in it.
Memory of the world
In Alexandria of Egypt , under the troubled reign of the first Ptolemies, the sages of the Library planted the seed of what many centuries later would be the network of networks . There were precedents such as the also mythical collection of Assurbanipal in Nineveh, the old Assyrian city in the ancient land of Entre Rios, but due to “its universality, its eagerness for knowledge and its unusual desire for fusion” the visionary initiative of the Macedonian conqueror, without forgetting either the worthy rival of Pergamo , barely admits the parallel to their counterparts in the ancient world. In the same way as other scholars, Irene Vallejo mentions Borges ‘s unforgettable story , The Library of Babel (1941), in a sense that is at once indebted to the ambitious desire that guided the Alexandrians – none other than to gather, in the words of the narrator, “everything that can be expressed, in all languages”– and surprisingly prescient, since in fact “the internet is an emanation –multiplied, vast and ethereal– of libraries”.inaugurated a ‘mental territory’ where the words of the Greeks, their promoters, coexisted with those of the Jews, the Egyptians, the Iranians and the Indians, partially Hellenized by the hosts of Alexander but at the same time custodians of their own traditions that contributed to create something like a commons . In another place, Vallejo recalls how what distinguished the Library were “its simplified and highly advanced techniques for finding the desired thread in the chaotic tangle of written wisdom.” That importance given to orderit is no stranger to the fact that we Spaniards, like the French, call computers the computer tools that other Europeans and our brothers in America designate with the name of computers. It was a professor of Classics at the Sorbonne, Jacques Perret , who proposed the variation of the Anglo-Saxon denomination. At that time it was also about building “a harmonious architecture against chaos” or building “a dam against the tsunami of time”. To draw a map, Vallejo says, of the “memory of the world.”