Philologist Irene Vallejo: “The Library of Alexander the Great was the first step towards the Internet” | Classics

Bborn in 1979, Irene Vallejo is a Spanish writer, historian and philologist, and regular columnist for the newspaper El País. She had written several books, including novels, essays and children’s books before publishing Infinity in one junco (Infinite in a reed), which has won numerous awards in Spain, including the National Essay Award, and spent 18 months on the bestseller list there. Mario Vargas Llosa described the book as “a masterpiece” and it has now been published in 30 countries. Charlotte Whittle’s English translation is titled Papyrus: The invention of books in the ancient world.

How did you become interested in old books and early print?
It goes back to my childhood. My parents were great readers and our house was full of books. I was fascinated by these rows of tiny black insects crossing [the page] that only adults could interpret. And later, my studies in classical philology brought me into contact with the period when books first emerged. And I’ve always been curious about the first times things happened.

In your book you say that as a child you thought every book was written for you and the only copy was in your house.
And I thought my father was Homer, because he told me the stories of The Odyssey! My parents used to change the names of the protagonists of the stories [to] me or my friends. So I thought all the literature was written for me, and I was so disappointed when I found out that wasn’t the case.

Why is it the great library of Alexandria so important in your book?
Alexander the Great was probably the first person to have a truly global view of the world, and it was his idea to build this comprehensive public library that was open to everyone – even slaves and people from unprivileged families. So it was something different in the democratization of knowledge. They wanted to collect all books from all cultures and make them accessible to everyone. It was like the first step towards the Internet.

The original title of Papyrus in Spanish was El infinito en un junco (Infinity in a reed). Can you explain?
It’s a metaphor for my description of what’s wonderful in books. The idea that infinite feelings, experiences, fears and emotions can be [contained] in something so small and common. I think of the first books in history, which were rolls of papyrus [made from a type of reed]. It is also a tribute to Pascal [Blaise Pascal, the French philosopher], which describes human beings as reeds. He said that we are fragile like reeds, but we have the power to learn and understand.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned while writing the book?
The biggest revelation of my research was the figure of Enheduanna – that the first person we know who signed a text was a woman. She’s not in [textbooks] in high school or university. I studied classical philology for many years before I heard of her. It’s more difficult for a woman to enter the literary canon, and I wanted to make an effort to find these names and these fragments of poems or speeches, to find the existence of these women.

Do you think that in our societies where books are so readily available, we undervalue them?
Yes. We take them for granted, but there was a long history before that, of people facing danger, sometimes dying, for books. And that is the adventurous story that I wanted to tell in this book. It’s an essay on books and reading, but it’s also a big adventure, and I designed it to be read with the same kind of thrill as a novel.

How the success of Papyrus changed your life?
It was a huge surprise. In Spain you are not expected to succeed with essays, and I also wrote the book at a very painful personal time. Our son was born with a very serious health problem, with a long hospital stay, and I wrote this book because it was therapeutic for me. [It] was born as a haven of peace in these painful times. I wasn’t even sure I could finish it. I didn’t know if anyone would post it. And it had a totally unexpected reception – a lot of readers adopted it and my life changed. All this happened during confinement, and it was so unexpected that a book on history, on classical philology, could be of some help in this difficult period. But somehow, readers found comfort in my book.

How and where do you write?
Nowadays I am not [working on] a big project because the promotion is too demanding and I travel all the time. So I’m just writing articles and taking notes, but I don’t have the calm or the time to start a new project. But since I became a mother, I got used to working everywhere and reading everywhere. Spoon in one hand, book in the other.

Which living writers do you most admire?
Mary Beard was a model for me, because she is also a classical philologist like me. She always breaks boundaries and challenges accepted knowledge about the ancient world. And she is able to communicate with irony and a sense of humor. It is a bestseller in Spain. I also like Tom Holland; his essays are very inspiring. I love Orlando Figes and Terry Eagleton. I like those books that are on the border between fiction and non-fiction, and essays that have humor and irony. I’ve always been very inspired by the British essay tradition. I also like John Berger, and darkening Age by Catherine Nixey. This kind of essay is not very common in Spanish literature. We have the academic dissertation, but I wanted to use the skills I learned as a novelist and [write] a sort of essay aimed at a wider audience. I think the most outstanding examples of these kinds of essays are written in English these days.

What if you could keep just one book from the ancient world, which one would it be?
My first answer would be The Odysseybecause that was the story [through] where I fell in love with literature. It is essential for me. But I love ancient history so much: Herodotus or Tacitus. And Thucydides; it is so insightful and useful for analyzing today’s world. So after The OdysseyI would save that of Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War.

Papyrus: The invention of books in the ancient world by Irene Vallejo is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£16.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

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