Cover image for The vanished library
The vanished library
Canfora, Luciano.
Personal Author:
Uniform Title:
Biblioteca scomparsa. English
Publication Information:
Berkeley : University of California Press, 1989.

Physical Description:
ix, 205 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm.
General Note:
Translation of: La biblioteca scomparsa.
Corporate Subject:

Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
Z722.5 .C3513 1987 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
Z722.5 .C3513 1987 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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The Library of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the Ancient World, has haunted Western culture for over 2,000 years. The Ptolemaic kings of Egypt--successors of Alexander the Great--had a staggering ambition: to house all of the books ever written under one roof, and the story of the universal library and its destruction still has the power to move us.

But what was the library, and where was it? Did it exist at all? Contemporary descriptions are vague and contradictory. The fate of the precious books themselves is a subject of endless speculation.

Canfora resolves these puzzles in one of the most unusual books of classical history ever written. He recreates the world of Egypt and the Greeks in brief chapters that marry the craft of the novelist and the discipline of the historian. Anecdotes, conversations, and reconstructions give The Vanished Library the compulsion of an exotic tale, yet Canfora bases all of them on historical and literary sources, which he discusses with great panache. As the chilling conclusion to this elegant piece of historical detective work he establishes who burned the books.

This volume has benefited from the collegial support of The Wake Forest University Studium.

Author Notes

Luciano Canfora teaches at the University of Bari and is the editor of the journal Quaderni di Storia . A specialist in ancient literature, he has published a history of Greek literature and studies of Thucydides.

Reviews 2

Publisher's Weekly Review

Canfora, an expert in ancient literature and a professor at the University of Bari (Italy), has created a loving, anecdotal ramble through that fabled store of classical learning, the Library of Alexandria, its history and destruction, probably not, in Canfora's opinion, during Caesar's campaign but some 300 to 400 years later, as the Arab world began to encroach on a crumbling Roman Empire. The author stops along the way to consider some germane (and some tangential) subjects: the fate of Aristotle's writings, the rival library at Pergamum, Ramses II's victory over the Hittites at Kadesh, the creation of the Septuagint. To avoid further distractions on this peripatetic journey, Canfora reserves the exegesis of historical sources to the second half of the book. But this is not without its drawbacks: the sense that one is getting only half the story at any given point and the inevitable redundancies. Whatever the shortcomings of this approach to an admittedly murky subject, Canfora makes clear g the importance of the Library. No matter how much was destroyed, far more was conserved--or created--by the scholars and copyists who worked within its confines. (Sept.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

The vanished library of the title is the library of Alexandria. Published in the series "Hellenistic Culture and Society," this is seemingly a scholarly book. The work is divided into two nearly equal parts, the first part containing discussion and narrative, the second dealing with "the sources." In addition, it includes a chronological table, a list of references for the first part, and an index. Reading the book, however, one does not find the careful, systematic presentation one would expect in a work of scholarship. It is not rigorously structured and various topics, frequently of peripheral interest to the Alexandrian Library, appear and often reappear. This reviewer found the author's fixation on the mortuary temple of Rameses II and its relation to the library bizarre. A number of interesting, if not always convincing, hypotheses and suggestions relating to the size, nature, and destruction of the library are introduced and discussed, but ultimately one comes away frustrated. If this is a serious work, why did the author not argue his points in a more analytical, less vague manner? If it is some kind of intellectual game, who really cares? J. H. Kaimowitz Trinity College (CT)