Cleopatra’s Books

Mary Beard

  • The Vanished Library: A Wonder of the Ancient World by Luciano Canfora, translated by Martin Ryle
    Radius, 205 pp, £14.95, November 1989, ISBN 0 09 174049 5
  • Herodotus by John Gould
    Weidenfeld, 164 pp, £14.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 297 79339 X

‘The Aristotle ... was already burning. Meanwhile, some sparks had flown towards the walls, and already the volumes of another bookcase were crumpling in the fury of the fire.’ So, in the final pages of The Name of the Rose, Umberto Eco destroys ‘the greatest library in Christendom’, hidden away in the impenetrable labyrinth of his macabre abbey. The reader cannot help but feel some satisfaction at this apparent disaster. For the maze of the abbey’s library and its unpleasant secrets serve as a metaphor for the closure of medieval thought and the dominance of oppressive monasticism, soon to be breached by the new sophistication represented by Eco’s hero, William of Baskerville. Paradoxically, the terrible fire brings light to the Dark Ages – and if its only major literary casualty is a ‘lost’ work of Aristotle, then not too many tears are to be shed.

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