I now blog over at The Eyre Guide! This blog is an archive of my past posts.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Refined Reader (6) The Library of Alexandria

Posted by Charlene // Tags: ,

The Refined Reader aims to take a look at the journey to where we are as readers today.  It's part history, part commentary - providing a brief, conversational summary of various aspects of our bookish past and comparing it to how it has affected us in modern times.  I love history, but I am no historian, and while I plan to do my research, if there are any errors, please let me know!  This is as much a learning venture for me as I hope it is for my blog visitors!

Artist reconstruction of the Library (source)
The Library of Alexandria, commissioned by Alexander the Great about 200 b.c. in Egypt, was one of the greatest libraries of ancient times.  At the time, there were no bound books, so the library may have housed as many as 400,000 papyrus or parchment scrolls.  It was a center for learning and enlightenment in the flourishing city of Alexandria.  It also housed an astronomical observatory, dining halls, study rooms, and even a zoo with exotic animals.  Many great writers, scientists, mathematicians and philosophers of the age would come to the Library to learn and exchange ideas.  This was a culturally significant turn in our history as the preservation of knowledge and ideas was an important step in our development as a species.  Unfortunately it was ultimately lost hundreds of years later and it's loss was perhaps a factor in the intellectual regression suffered in the Dark Ages.

There are many things we don't know about the Library of Alexandria, like the exact nature and the number of all the scrolls it contained and how much ground-breaking knowledge, stories and science were lost.  The exact nature of why we lost the Library is not clearly known either.  The destruction of the library is conjectured to have been a gradual event, precipitated by destructive wars and Christian and Muslim conquerors who believed the knowledge contained in the library was against God.  But it was a terrible loss, and many believe that if we had kept that knowledge we would be a much more advanced civilization today.  Aristarchus, an ancient Greek astronomer, was the first to propose a heliocentric worldview, that the Earth revolves around the sun - 1800 years before Copernicus!

I find the history of the Library of Alexandria so interesting because it shows how advanced people in ancient times were.  And how they valued books, and the knowledge and the entertainment it contained.  The library was open to both men and women because knowledge and scholarship was open to all.  Such amazing values and tolerance that we had to find again over the course of hundreds of years.

There is no easy answer to the question I'm coming up with for this post but it's something I wonder about sometimes - you don't have to pick one book though, or you can just go with your first thought:

What in your opinion is one of the most culturally significant works of fiction?  Something that speaks of our humanity and captures an important aspect of our existence?  

For instance a book we would send into space for aliens to get an idea of our society -  my first thought was To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.

Wikipedia / Wikipedia
Website of the Librarian of Alexandria
The Straight Dope

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  1. I LOVE the Library of Alexandria! It's just such a perfect ideal of culture and knowledge and learning... and it really makes me wonder about what the world might have been like if it hadn't been lost. (Plot for some alternate-history fiction, perhaps?)

  2. That is a great premise to explore in a story! It's really a great way to understand the power of knowledge and how much it advances us as a society and a species. And it's nice to see an example of how books and libraries bring people together!

  3. Alice in ReaderlandApril 21, 2014 at 6:58 PM

    I love reading about The Library of Alexandria, it would have been so amazing to see!!!
    As soon as you asked the question about culturally significant fiction, my first thought was To Kill a Mockingbird, and then I read that you said that too! I love that book.
    Great post!!! :)

  4. I've always gotten really sad when someone mentions the Library of Alexandria. I mean, how much farther along could we be if it hadn't been lost? I love seeing that knowledge was so valued then, even though I feel like we think we're so much more knowledge-seeking than those before us.

    I don't even know if I could think of something as a good example... There are too many choices! But To Kill a Mockingbird is a great one! Such an awesome book. :)

  5. I know, I wish there were some real photos around of the Library! Why couldn't they have invented the camera back then? LOL Oh wow, I do think To Kill a Mockingbird is one of the most important books ever written, so I'm happy to see that other people thought of it too!

  6. Yes I agree, I didn't really know as much about it before reading up on it for this post, so I was surprised by just how advanced this library was for the time! And how so many great works of fiction was also lost through this. I hope we are more knowledge-seeking now - sometimes it is disheartening to read how much people believe in misinformation and hearsay.

    Yay! I know To Kill a Mockingbird is an amazing book, but I don't hear too much about it from other book lovers. I feel that I do need to re-read it though to fully appreciate it since I read it in high school so long ago.

  7. Oh goodness me now you're asking me to think deep. I don't know what particular piece of fiction would fit that bill. Certainly can't think of one off the top of my head!

  8. Haha, a bookish challenge is the best though! It is a hard decision - there are so many great books out there, and to come up with one that is deeply meaningful for humanity is a tall order!

  9. Yeessssss I wrote about Alexandria for my dissertation so I love this <3 (more specifically, imagery of the god Serapis in Alexandria, but still Alexandria!)

    Um, how amazing would a modern library like that be? If I had a library with a zoo nearby, I would never leave. I just love to imagine all these famous figures meeting there.

    I actually considered doing a feature on books I'd 'preserve' for the feature (which evolved and went on to become my Museum of Literary Wonders feature), and The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien would definitely be one of them. Firstly, because it's my absolute favourite book EVER, and secondly because it has had a HUGE effect on modern fantasy fiction.

  10. Oh then you know so much more on this than I do! I was not familiar with Serapis so had a google - and he's so interesting! A meld between Greek and Egyptian mythology - I had no idea there was an attempt to bring those religions together.

    LOL a zoo and a library is pretty much perfect entertainment! I wonder how a modern version of the Library would fare now - there would be no point for the information to be so localized, but to have one physical place that is a center of knowledge would be amazing to visit!

    I highly agree with your book pick! And you should have a Literary Wonders book edition with some of the most impactful books every written!

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  12. I am so behind on checking the blogs I follow this week because I was on vacation. But I had to see what you had in store for us this week and you did not disappoint! I always get upset when I read about this library! I want to know what it looked like and what it contained. I want to know!!! It just seems magical like it's Atlantis !

  13. Oh I hope you had a great vacation! And thank you I'm glad you enjoyed this post! :) I totally agree - the Library is just as wondrous and magical as Atlantis!