Review: The Vanished Library, by Luciano Canfora

(Originally posted on Amazon 8/24/2003)

vanished library

Almost certainly, no other ancient institution has caught the modern imagination so much as has The Library of Alexandria. Begun around 300BC, this remarkable establishment became the center of learning and scholarship in the Mediterranean world for hundreds of years thereafter. Our debt to the great library is incalculable; to it we owe the Septuagint (the Greek translations of the Old Testament), the standardization of Homer and Hesiod to their final forms, and the survival of the great Greek thinkers (Plato, Aristotle) to modern times. The beginnings of modern thought — science, philosophy, mathematics, medicine — can all be traced to this unique collection and the people who were a part of its scholarly society. It was the home to writers and thinkers that we are familiar with (Polybius, Appollonius Rhodius) and to far more that we are not but should (Theophrastus, Neleus). And its demise ranks as one of the greatest tragedies in Western history.

In The Vanished Library, Luciano Ganfora (translated here by Martin Ryle) gives a popular account of the history of the Library, from its founding and shadowy beginnings, all the way up to its decline and destruction centuries later. But what makes this book interesting is that Ganfora resists the temptation to slip into the academic spouting of facts, figures, and theories at every opportunity. Rather, his aim is to not only show the reader the library, but to give one a feel for what it was like to be there, to work among the thousands of scrolls, and to live the life of the ancient Greek scholar. His research is grounded firmly in the original sources, many of which he discusses at length in the book’s appendix and several of which he quotes at length. The book sometime feels like a novel, because Ganfora frequently adopts a storyteller’s tone in order to illustrate some aspect he wishes us to explore. Occasionally, Ganfora also digresses into some of the more controversial areas of the Library’s history; he argues, for instance, that Caesar’s sacking of Alexandria during the Roman Civil Wars did not destroy the library as many scholars insist, but rather destroyed an annex that was used to house finished scrolls meant for export across the Mediterranean (the Library being also a major source for the dissemination of literary works across the known world). But none of this detracts from the book itself. It does a very good job of introducing one to the subject of the Library and what we know about it, and makes for a rather delightful read along the way.

This is not to say that this is the best introductory book on the subject out there; in my opinion, that would have to go to Derek Adie Flower’s The Shores of Wisdom. Ganfora does skip over whole areas of the Library’s history that Flower does not, and goes more in depth than Ganfora on some of the academic arguments surrounding such subjects as the Library’s demise and its impact on Western culture. But Ganfora’s book is easier to read for the layperson, and shorter — one could read it cover-to-cover in literally a single sitting. And I think Ganfora does a better job of evoking the sense of just what the Library was like than Flower. For this reason I would recommend this book along with The Shores of Wisdom; both work as complementary pieces, with the short comings of the one made up in the other.

4 Stars out of 5 Stars