After two millennia, the words still strike with amazement, the visions still transport us, there are still secrets only half discovered.Most of the ancient books have been destroyed either intentionally or accidentally, hatred and forgetfulness have obliterated vast treasures of past cultures. Nonetheless, there has still been a wondrous, even miraculous survival of records. If it was all a heap of insignificant debris, it wouldn’t matter, but….
The miracle of the preservation of thought through marks on a smooth surface is commemorated every week by one of the most impressive little religious ceremonies in the world. Every Sabbath in every Jewish synagogue, a hand-written copy of the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, is taken out of its palace. After a reading,the book is carried through the congregation before it is returned to the ark, and every pious jew kisses it.
It is always handwritten with a quill pen. It is always in the form of a parchment roll. Its text is always the same as that of its predecessor, from which it was copied: the very letters are counted so that they may never vary by a jot, any more than the law of God Almighty can vary. By doing homage to the book in this way, the jews express their devotion to the name of the Creator contained in the Torah; but they also, by implication, express reverence for one of the individual’s greatest inventions: the written book.
The Jews, like the Moslems, have always carried their sacred writings with them: the book and the people have sustained each other. But among the Greek and Latin classics there are no such sacred books: the nations for whom they were written have disappeared; theur very languages have assumed new shapes and sounds, remote, although not wholly different from the original tongues. How have the great books from the past survived through so many centuries?
First we must sadly admit that very many of them have been lost. In Greece and the Greek-speaking world, and later in the Roman world, there were many libraries and many hundreds of thousands of books. Literacy was more widespread in the second century of our era than it was in the eighteenth. The walls of Pompeii, covered with public announcements and private scribbles in three languages, show how natural and commonplace was the use of writing then. Nearly all townsfolk could read, freemen and slaves alike. Only on the farms and ranches were many people illiterate. In Egypt excavators now dig up large private book collections buried under the sand near villages where, until recent times, often few of the fellahin owned a single book, or could read it if they did.
Although some authors of antiquity composed only a few works, to which they gave all their life’s energy, there were many who produced an amazing number of them. The comedian Aristophanes left fifty-four plays. Aeschylus, first of the great tragic dramatists, wrote at least eighty. Livy’s history of Rome ran into one hundred and forty-two volumes; and such polygraphs were not exceptional. But of many of the most famous authors we have only a few scanty though precious relics. And while the great aforementioned writers have survived in however a meagre proportion, dozens of others have vanished almost without a trace. From quotations and allusions, we know the names of about a hundred and seventy poets of the “Old Comedy” , the group to which Aristophanes belonged, with about 1500 titles of their plays. Except Aristophanes, not one survives. The Athenians had a lot of fun, judging from the titles, in the fifth century before Christ, and it is painful to remember how much of it has vanished. Maybe we’ll get lucky and some cave or lost tunnel will be unearthed with literary treasures.