If you’re looking for a fast-paced chronological history of books, this isn’t it (though Mark Kurlansky’s Paper: Paging Through History might be more up your alley). Instead, Papyrus by Irene Vallejo (translated by Charlotte Whittle) unravels as a series of literary essays that meander through time, gradually revealing the emergence of books as we know them.

Although Vallejo does shift into modern territory from time to time – even into our own century – we never stray far from the author’s scholarly interest in ancient history and the classics. We’re treated to her musings on the egotism of empire-building (and library-building), feminism in ancient literature, control of books as a political weapon, and the uniting effect of a story well told (and recorded).

It’s a fascinating albeit academic immersion in the deep pool of literary history, and one that also yields plenty of inspiration for further reading – from Homer’s Iliad and Plato’s Republic to Marcel Schwob’s Imaginary Lives (1896) and Chiua Achebe’s novel No Longer at Ease (1960).

One word of advice: read the hard copy – what Vallejo calls the ‘page book’ – to properly indulge in an experience 2,000 years in the making.

By Olivia McDowell


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