Papyrus: The Invention of Books in the Ancient World

Irene Vallejo

Irene Vallejo Headshot
Photo © James Rajotte

Long before books were mass produced, those made of reeds from along the Nile were worth fighting and dying for. The story of the creation and preservation of books is vivid and dramatic, and rife with bloodshed and megalomania. Their survival can be traced to the battlefields of Alexandra the Great, beneath the eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, and to Cleopatra’s palaces and the scene of Hypatia’s murder.

In this prize-winning, internationally bestselling work of history, classicist Irene Vallejo chronicles literary culture in the ancient world, and the heroic efforts that ensured its survival over thousands of years. Tracing the history of the written word takes us to capitals where culture flourished, as well as hidden places where knowledge found refuge in chaotic times. Woven throughout are fascinating stories about the spies, scribes, illuminators, librarians, booksellers, authors and statesmen whose rich and sometimes complicated engagements with the written word bears remarkable similarities to the world today.

An international bestseller published in more than 40 countries, Papyrus is translated into English by Charlotte Whittle.

Below is an extract of the shortlisted book.



Mysterious bands of men on horseback travel the roads of Greece. The country folk watch them with suspicion from their plots of land, or the doors to their huts. They know from experience that only those who represent danger travel: soldiers, mercenaries, and slave traders. They frown and grumble until the men disappear over the horizon. Country folk do not look kindly upon armed strangers.

The horsemen ride on, paying the villagers no heed. For months, they have climbed mountains, traversed ravines, crossed valleys, forded rivers, and sailed from island to island. Their muscles have hardened and their endurance increased since they were sent on this peculiar mission. To achieve their task, they must venture into violent realms in a world that is almost continually at war. These are hunters in search of a special kind of prey. Prey that is silent, cunning, and vanishes without a trace.

If these menacing envoys were to sit down in a tavern in some port or other to drink wine, eat seared octopus, talk, and make merry with strangers (something they never do, out of caution), they could tell great tales of their travels. They have entered lands racked with plague. They have crossed regions scorched by fire. They have seen the warm ashes of destruction and the brutality of rebels and mercenaries at war. Since maps of extensive territories do not yet exist, they have strayed and wandered directionless for days on end, beneath the fury of sun and storms. They’ve been forced to drink foul waters that have caused them horrendous diarrhea. Whenever it rains, their carts and mules get stuck in the morass; they have pulled amid cries and curses until they collapsed to their knees, their faces pressed to the earth. When night falls on them, far from shelter, only their capes shield them from scorpions. They have known the maddening torment of lice and the constant threat of the bandits roaming the roads. Often as they ride through vast, desolate terrain, they shudder to imagine these outlaws lying in wait, holding their breath, lurking at a bend in the road, ready to fall upon them, murder them in cold blood, plunder their bags, and leave their warm corpses among the bushes.

It makes sense for them to be wary. The king of Egypt has entrusted great sums of money to them before sending them to carry out his orders across the sea. In

those times, only a few decades after the death of Alexander, it was highly dangerous, almost suicidal, to travel with a large fortune. And though thieves’ daggers, contagious diseases, and shipwrecks threaten to cause such an expensive mission to fail, the pharaoh insists on sending his agents out from the country of the Nile, crossing borders and traversing great distances in all directions. The king thirsts after his prey with impatient desire, while his secret hunters scour the Earth, facing unknown perils. The country folk who spied from their doorways, or the mercenaries and bandits, would have widened their eyes and dropped their jaws in amazement had they known what the foreign horse- men pursued.

Books. They were searching for books.

It was the best kept secret of the Egyptian court. The Lord of the Two Lands, one of the most powerful men of his time, would sacrifice lives (the lives of others, of course—that’s always the way with kings) to obtain all the books in the world for his Great Library in Alexandria. He was chasing the dream of an absolute, perfect library, a collection that would gather together every single work by every single author since the beginning of time.

Forgotten Men, Anonymous Women

We are the only animals who imagine fables, who scatter the darkness with stories, who learn to live with chaos thanks to the tales we tell, who stoke the embers of fires with the air of their words, who travel great distances to carry their chronicles to strangers. And when we share the same stories, we are no longer strangers anymore.

There is something astonishing about having managed to pre- serve the fictions first woven millennia ago. Ever since someone narrated The Iliad for the first time, the vicissitudes of the old duel between Achilles and Hector on the beaches of Troy have never been forgotten. As Harari writes, a prehistoric sociologist who lived twenty thousand years ago could easily have concluded that mythology had little chance of survival. What is a story, after all? A string of words. A sigh. A breath of air that emerges from the lungs, passes the larynx, vibrates on the vocal cords and takes its definitive shape when the tongue touches the palate, the teeth, or the lips. It seems impossible to save something so fragile. But humanity defied the absolute sovereignty of destruction by inventing writing and books. These discoveries gave birth to an immense communal space, and a fantastical increase in the life expectancy of ideas occurred. Somehow, mysteriously, spontaneously, the love of books forged an invisible chain of people—men and women—who, without knowing one another, have rescued the treasure of the greatest stories, thoughts, and dreams throughout time.

This is the story of a choral novel that has yet to be written. The tale of a fabulous collective adventure, the quiet passion of so many human beings united by this mysterious loyalty: storytelling women, inventors, scribes, illuminators, librarians, translators, booksellers, traveling salesmen, teachers, scholars, spies, rebels, travelers, nuns, slaves, adventurers, printers. Readers at their clubs, in their homes, on mountaintops, beside the roaring sea, in capital cities pulsing with energy, and in distant enclaves where knowledge takes shelter in times of chaos. Common people whose names, in many cases, go unrecorded by history. Forgotten men, anonymous women. People who fought for us, who fought for the hazy faces of the future.

© Irene Vallejo (translated by Charlotte Whittle) from Papyrus, The Invention of Books in the Ancient World, Hodder & Stoughton, 2023

Irene Vallejo earned a European Doctorate from the Universities of Zaragoza and Florence. Papyrus was awarded the National Essay Prize, the Critical Eye Prize for Narrative and the Bookstore Recommendation Award and it is being translated into over 30 languages. She is a regular columnist for El País and Heraldo de Aragón, and is the author of two children’s books, two novels, and three collections of essays, articles, and short fiction.

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