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The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Irene Vallejo

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The Iliard and The Odyssey, and lots of other lost poems were the oral encyclopedia that compiled the Greeks inherited wisdom. Exciting plot captured attention, then brief lessons about navigation, agriculture, boat and house building, rules for holding a meeting and making decisions, how to behave in battle, how to speak to a priest, what the gods expect about obeying laws and customs.

During the silent film era, theatres employed an explainer, who read the subtitles to an illiterate audience. They came equipped with FX like horns and cocnut shells to mimic on screen sounds. The most entertaining ones were a draw in themselves. Heigo Kurosawa was a famous benshi or narrator in Japan. He brought his younger brother in as an apprentice. But when talkies arrived in Japan about 1930, he was discarded. Shot himself in 1933. But his brother made himself into a film director and thrived.

Herodotus, in C5 BC, set himself task od recording the cultures of the world and their history. To do that he travelled, from the Atlantic to India, and from Ethiopia to the Urals. On foot. Tried to understand everyone, why they behaved and what they believed.

Heated debates about how far humour should go. The reactions usually depend on whether the convictions under scrutiny are our own or others. I am outraged, you are sensitive, he is dogmatic.

Heinrich Heine in 1821 "Those who burn books will in the end burn people."

Holocaust survivor: "He who speaks of hunger ends up hungry. Those who speak of death are the first to die. Vitamin L (literature) and F (future) seem to me the best provisions."

Capturing slaves one of main reasons for wars right down to modern times. Pre-machinery, slaves a crucial economic resource. On one occasion Julius Caeser sold a recently conquered village of 53,000 people on the spot. The deal was done so quickly because the slave traders made up a second army that followed the legion, buying fresh merchandise as soon as battle over.

Modern jeremiahs predicting demise of hard copy books. But we suffer from a modernity bias. Constantly told of new/improved inventions, leading us to think that the new thing is the one with the future, and the old will vanish. But the opposite is true. The longer somehing has been with us, the greater its staying power. There will be money, tables and chairs, the wheel, spoons, scissors, hammers,and books, in the future, but maybe not iPads and WhatsApp.

Even scrolls still haven't totally disappeared. Still used for some ceremonies, but also preserved in words. We still talk about a book being 'long' we 'scroll' up and down a screen.

Hermogenes of Tarsus was executed by emperor Domitian upset by allusions in a book he wrote. But to teach everyone a lesson, the copyists and the booksellers involved were also crucified. This example has been followed down through the ages. The reprisal machine's success lies in extending the theat to every link in the chain of distribution. Effectively silences troublesome texts, bc although writer may be willinhg to risk punishment, the rest are not.

Hitler was a bibliophile. On his death he left a library of 1500 books. In 1920 Mao Tse Tung opened a bookshop in Changsha. It was so successful that grew to have six emmployees.

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