Books read in September and August

I read “The Map of Knowledge” by Violet Moller and it blew me away, as the Americans say.

I was blown away because I was conscious yet again of how stunningly little I know and how much there is to know and how little time there is in a puny human life.

Moller encapsulates all of the lost ancient knowledge through the cities that valued it and protected it after the destruction of the Greek world. She follows Gallen, Euclid and Ptolemy texts as they escape the flames of the library of Alexandria , the Mongol destruction of the Abbasids culture and the Christian attempts to bury ancient learning in Western Europe.

Reading this wonderful book inspired me to watch the film “Agora”about the female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia who never stopped working on the true circulation of the planets even as bigotry and fundamentalism closed in on her and finally killed her as the Hellenic world took to Christianity.

I then read “The Swerve” by Stephen Greenblatt by which is a wonderful exploration of the survival of a single pre Christian book, which was neither about medicine nor mathematics. To my great shame I had never even heard of the original text which is “The Nature of Things “ ( De Rerum Natura) by Lucretius , but I had heard at least of the philosopher who inspired it: Epicurus.

“The Swerve” is an account of how a 15th century scholar called Poggio trawled through the libraries of European monasteries deliberately looking for forgotten ancient books. He struck gold when he discovered a copy of “The Nature of Things.” This poem written in about 50 BC explains that all life is made of atoms, that the Gods, if they exist at all, have not the slightest interest in humanity; that there is no reward in the afterlife and that our bodily atoms just return to be reused in the cycle of life.

This does not seem so remarkable an idea now to many people, but for more than two thousand years these ideas were incendiary and the survival of the book at all is extraordinary. Goldblatt shows how the discovery of this lost book made possible the rebirth of scholarship that is known as the Renaissance and how this laid the foundation for our modern world.

Of course I had to try reading “The Nature of Things “ for myself. It is written in wonderfully sinuous poetry and this was so unexpectedly beautiful that I almost could not take it seriously. When the poetry gives way to denser science I find myself giving up and returning to “Just William” but between these two poles of experience I will keep reading, stay sane and use that breathless perspective of learning and history to weather the coming winter .

Happy Reading!

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