Friday, March 13, 2009

'in our time' focuses on the library of alexandria

Yesterday's edition of Melvyn Bragg's weekly Thursday morning Radio 4 programme In Our Time was on the Library of Alexandria. It can be listened to or downloaded as a podcast via the programme website.

The blurb on the website says: Had the library at Alexandria not existed, it would have been invented by one of the many stories housed within its walls. It is a building of legendary status, a library built to contain all the knowledge of all the world on rank upon rank of Egyptian papyri. Others were not so impressed. Timon of Phlius evoked the spirit of the place in his remark that ‘in populous Egypt many cloistered bookworms are fed, arguing endlessly in the chicken coop of the Muses’.Whatever your view of it, the legacy of the library is with us today, not just in the ideas it stored and the ideas it seeded but also in the way it organised knowledge and the tools developed for dealing with it. It still influences the things we know and the way we know them to this day.
Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at the University of Cambridge
Matthew Nicholls, Lecturer in Classics at the University of Reading
Serafina Cuomo, Reader in Roman History at Birkbeck College, University of London

In the e-mail circulated to subscribers after the programme, Melvyn Bragg writes:

Oh dear! I missed out a topic which would have been of the keenest possible interest to In Our Time listeners. The great library at Alexandria was noted for many famous things and lasted for centuries and had no small part in changing the world. But, for many of you, I think that, (the excessive use of commas will be justified in a moment) it was there that Punctuation was invented. Punctuation, accentuation, sentences, paragraphs – the whole box of tricks. I had circled it several times in the notes. I had transferred it to the main body of the questions. I was ready for it. And, for reasons which I cannot understand, I hopped over it. I also hopped over philology, but that, I presume, is more excusable.
The other thing I’d like to point out is that when Simon Goldhill said that without the library of Alexandria we would not have had the Renaissance in Europe, he is right of course, but, as In Our Time has tried to demonstrate on many occasions, the knowledge went through the brilliant translators of the Arab world and in fact, in one sense, the first great inheritors of the library at Alexandria were the scholars of Baghdad.
After the programme I went to the Royal Society for a meeting on the upcoming celebrations to mark 350 years of this most extraordinary institution. The reach of the Royal Society is staggering and celebrations will occur in China, Malaysia, Australia, America, all over Europe, the UK, most intensively in every city of the UK itself.
Martin Rees was in fine form at the Royal Society. By which I mean, specifically, he questioned whether I had really and properly got to the core of the measurement problem last week. He was unstinting in his admiration for the contributors and therefore, without doubt from this mildest mannered of brilliant men, I was the culprit! I’d thought as much and it was bracing to have it so charmingly confirmed.
After the meeting I went for a walk through St James’s Park. The lake has been dredged and various machines are scraping the bottom. It’s a very shallow pond and seems incapable of supporting the immense number and variety of birds that we see there. A few forlorn pelicans bore the brunt of the photography on the little remaining island of water opposite Horse Guards Parade.
The park, yet again, was full of herds of extremely well-behaved French children sitting on benches, eating. There seems to be a perpetual competition for how many young French schoolchildren can occupy one bench in St James’s Park.
There is something so attractive about the names that came up while reading about the library at Alexandria. I remember that Marlowe was seduced by the names that he came across in Tamburlaine and relished them. But what a parade we have here: Philo of Byzantium, Galen of Pergamum, Apollonius of Rhodes, Theocritus of Syracuse, Demetrius of Phaleron and Callimachus of Cyrene. Callimachus wrote ‘mega biblion, mega kakon’, meaning a big book is a big evil, and then proceeded to write 120 volumes cataloguing the collection at Alexandria.
I suppose we have our great names too – Richard the Lionheart, and our Dukes of… and Duchesses of… and Princes of… and perhaps I am taken by the antiquity and the learning involved in these names from the past.
And so to the rest of the day, which always needs to be re-geared after In Our Time. Somehow, there is a part of me that thinks at quarter-to-ten on Thursday morning, quite a bit of the day’s work is done.
Best wishes
Melvyn Bragg

The New Library of Alexandria

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