Monday, September 17, 2012

Where it all began


I have just returned from visiting the birthplace of the book.

My summer holiday, an Aegean cruise, brought many spine-tingling moments, like walking in Ephesus on the very stones St Paul trod on his way to preach to the worshippers of Diana and where Mark Anthony strolled with Cleopatra after laying out for her the very first red carpet - gallons of red wine poured down the street she would step on to as she alighted from the boat that brought her from Egypt to her lover.  A bit sticky, I'd have said, but doubtless she reminded herself it was the thought that counted as it ruined her very best pair of the Egyptian Manolo Blahnik sandals.

As an author, though, the ancient site of Pergamon (above) - now in Turkish Izmir - was of particular fascination.  There's not much left of the once-great city: a theatre, the remains of a temple or two, a shrine, a sanctuary, the market place, all set on a high and windy hill amid barren rocks and scrubby trees.  Yet this is where books began.

Until around the second century BC the great libraries of the Ancient World held only scrolls; you couldn't open a book, you had to unroll it.  It was in Pergamon that parchment (the word derives from the name) began to be used when supplies of papyrus from Egypt dried up.

Lamb or goat skins were treated, stretched and dried - they still make it there today.  It gave a stiff, firm surface for writing on and instead of being glued into a rolling strip, the cured hides were cut to separate sheets and bound so that it became possible to 'read a book' as we do today, although admittedly these books were so heavy and unwieldy that you needed a slave to hold them propped up and turn the pages for you.  So that was how it all started.

I took my i-Pad with me on holiday, of course.  It's ideal for travelling when you have a restricted luggage allowance and I duly loaded some books on to it.  But since my worst nightmare is being stranded somewhere with nothing to read, I can never bring myself to trust a machine - what if it broke down? - so I chucked out a few pairs of shoes in favour of an ample supply of old-fashioned, utterly reliable books.

And you know what?  I never actually got round to the e-books.  I know, I know, I'm a dinosaur.  And yes, I know too that there were plenty of curmudgeonly Greeks and Romans who went about muttering that opening a book just wasn't the same as unrolling it, thank you very much.   They might have felt more like making the effort if they'd known it would be another two thousand years before the system changed.  I, on the other hand, reckon that i would only just have learned to love the e-book when I'd be expected to adapt again to reading books that are projected on to the back of my hand or floating on the air in front of me.  I'm consoling myself with the thought that there will still be plenty of actual books around for me to cosy up to in that intimate way that is so addictive -  and keep the e-books for emergency use.

4 comments:

Charlotte Hinger said...

What an exquisite setting!

Aline Templeton said...

yes, it was amazing. I really felt I was walking in the footsteps of history for the whole holiday.

Rick Blechta said...

I did the same thing in the Roman Forum last year. Walking on the Via Sacra, Julius Caesar's (among a few others) daily commute to work!

Aline Templeton said...

My favourite Roman place was Ostia - such a well-preserved town that you felt you were walking round like aone of the inhabitants, dropping in on the pub with sinks below the bar to wash the glasses and a fresco to tell you the menu!