Ancient Libraries

Ancient Libraries, edited by Jason Konig, Katerina Oikonomopoulou and Greg Woolf

Cambridge University Press (2013), Hardback, 497 pages


The most treasured item in my library, for the purely selfish reason that my very first published work is within its pages. Yes, on the contents page, seventh on the list, you will see “Priests, Patrons and Playwrights: Libraries in Rome before 168 BC”, which is indeed my very own effort. In September, 2008, I travelled a very long way, to St Andrews in Scotland, to attend a conference entitled “Ancient Libraries”. I was then a PhD student, working on a thesis which would eventually be entitled “Roman Libraries during the Late Republic and Early Empire: with Special Reference to the Library of Pliny the Elder”, so you can probably see why I did want to travel a long way (and spend about $2500 of my own funds, over and above the $2000 the University of Queensland generously contributed for my travel) to attend this conference. In fact, once I had heard about this conference, I was determined to get there by any means possible. Given the topic of my thesis, I simply had to be there. Not only do conferences specifically related to this topic come along about once every Ice Age, but every authority in the field, everyone whose papers I had been reading in the course of my study was going to be there. So, after about 6 months of skimping, saving, promising, wangling, arguing and cajoling, I found myself on a plane to Heathrow. Then, the Tube to King’s Cross. Then, a train to Edinburgh. Then, another train to Leuchars. Then, finally, a bus to St Andrews. Planes, trains and automobiles, literally. (I got major kudos from those at the conference for having travelled by far the farthest, by the way). But it was so worth it. The conference was fabulous, the papers were interesting in the extreme (don’t laugh, if you are interested in ancient libraries, they would be), and I got to rub shoulders and converse with all the authorities in the field. It was priceless in every sense of the word, in an academic sense, and as a life experience. Presenting my own modest contribution, I hardly remember. To my mind, it was simply dwarfed by the superb papers which I heard, and which are contained within these pages. However, for better or for worse, because I happened to present at a conference attended by so many luminaries, my modest contribution has actually been published (think of a minnow getting caught in a net with a whole school of bluefin tuna). About it, I will say nothing more, you can judge for yourself. About the book, I could say a great deal. But simply, it a priceless collection of material on the subject of libraries in the ancient world, not a truly exciting topic, I will happily grant you. But precious, bceause it is unlikely there will be such a collection of material on this topic published again, at least not in my lifetime. It’s by no means an inexpensive book, so I doubt anyone will be buying it for pleasure. However, if by some chance you happen across a copy, perhaps in a university library, I highly recommend that you at least skim its pages. You may just find something that interests you. And if you do conjure up the funds to purchase it, you be assured of having something in your possession that will only appreciate in value, in academic if not monetary terms.


(Come on, I can’t give it a 10, can I? No-one would believe its a valid score, given my level of self-interest, would they?)

The General

The General: Charles De Gaulle and the France He Saved, by Jonathan Fenby

Skyhorse Publishing (2013), Paperback, 736 pages

indexdegTwo treasured books in my collection are Alan Bullock’s massive dual biography of Hitler and Stalin and Roy Jenkins’ marvelous biography of Churchill. Now I have added another biography of a war leader to my library, and while I don’t believe this one is in the same class as Bullock or Jenkins, it’s a worthwhile and informative read. I must admit prior to reading this my knowledge of De Gaulle’s life was limited to the Day of the Jackal and various stereotypical images of a very tall and very arrogant French general. I have now found that those stereotypes were true – De Gaulle was very tall, and he was very, very arrogant. I was somewhat suspicious when I first saw the title for this book – speaking about “The France He Saved” led to me to believe this might be a whitewashing hagiography of De Gaulle by an adoring Francophile. Thankfully I was quite wrong, and I now believe the title was intended to be slightly ironic. Fenby is quite unflinching in his warts and all portrayal of De Gaulle. While De Gaulle’s good qualities (strength of character, patience, determination, patriotism and devotion to his family) are all faithfully recorded, De Gaulle’s failings (monumental arrogance,extreme egotism, total lack of loyalty and gratitude to anyone other than family and long remembrance of grudges) are also pitilessly exposed. Indeed, he does such a good job of this that I found myself in the rare position of finishing a biography feeling more negatively about the subject than I had previously. I really have to say that after reading this I do not like De Gaulle. While acknowledging his heroism and determination during the war years, and his touching devotion to his family, particularly his daughter Anne, who had Downs Syndrome (this was not something of which I was previously aware, and his tenderness with her is really affecting), my overwhelming feeling was annoyance and occasionally fury. I suspect readers will pick and choose their own particular beef with De Gaulle, for myself, as an Anglophile, I was particularly incensed with De Gaulle’s contempt and disdain for Britain and the US, in fact Anglophone nations in general, despite monumental sacrifices made by them on France’s behalf in two world wars. Gratitude and loyalty (except to family) simply was not part of De Gaulle’s nature, and time and again, Fenby frankly records De Gaulle’s contemptuous discarding of people who had served him loyally, sometimes for decades, because it served his purpose at the time, Georges Pompidou, De Gaulle’s long-time Prime Minister and eventual successor, being a very notable example.However, personal feelings aside, this is a an excellent read, involving and informative. The pacing is good, the author not allowing it to become bogged down in minutiae yet not skimping on information where it is required. While I do not believe this biography has the real academic substance to be considered definitive, it is an excellent introduction for those like me. who knew little about De Gaulle or indeed modern French history as a whole beyond the stereotypes. Enjoyable.


Burial Rites

Burial Rites, by Hannah Kent

Pan Macmillan (2013), Paperback, 338 pages


A great book, but definitely not recommended for anyone looking for a light-hearted, uplifting page turner. It’s not a feel-good story, by any means, in fact it’s a real downer. This doesn’t detract from the quality, it is superbly written, its sparse, economical style perfectly matching the harsh, constrained lives of the characters in an unforgiving environment. The writer is unforgiving and unflinching in her portrayal of the tragic story of Agnes Magnusdottir, who in 1829 became the last person to be executed in Iceland. Before her execution, Agnes was sent to live with a family in remote north-eastern Iceland, there being no suitable prison to hold condemned criminals. The story of Agnes’ troubled life and her alleged crime, the result of a tormented love quadrangle, are brought out through her interactions with the family, who are at first hostile, but later become sympathetic, and her confidences to her chosen spritual counsellor, a young and inexperienced priest who becomes her staunch support in the last moments of her life. There is no happy ending, it is based on a true story and the reader is aware even before starting the book that the climax of the book will see Agnes publicly beheaded, although the reader is mercifully spared the final stroke. The author is at pains to make clear that while the story is true, she has made her own interpretation of Agnes’ character based on her own reading of the documents in the case, as well as local stories and folklore. Agnes is not a sympathetic character at first, even though we meet her in the extremes of a dismal captivity in a filthy cell. She seems quite cold and even bitter, but the reader’s feelings towards her mellow as the story of her brutal life and the circumstances of the crime emerge. In the final pages, as death looms, her reserve disintegrates, and she becomes a terrified, frail woman desperately clinging to her spiritual comforter, their positions neatly reversed as she had always seemed the strong one while he seemed weak and ineffectual. It is a wrenching ending, difficult for the reader, but superbly written. A great read, if not an easy one. Kent captures the grittiness and uncertainty of life in a harsh, unforgiving environment superbly. You probably won’t feel any better about life for having read this, in fact it will probably leave you somewhat depressed, but as a reading experience it is well worthwhile. Not a light read, but a great read.


The Bone Thief

The Bone Thief, by V.M. Whitworth

Ebury (2012), Paperback, 464 pages


Life is full of peculiar coincidences. Having no sooner finished the life story of Oswald Iding, King of Northumbria, than I come across this entertaining novel in which Oswald, now dead some 300 years, features prominently as St Oswald, one of the most revered martyrs in Anglo-Saxon England and whose relics are in high demand. The book is based on a brief, cryptic reference in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which notes that in around 900 AD, Aethelfleda, Queen of Mercia, obtains the bones of St Oswald from where they have been hidden since the destruction of their shrine by the Vikings and has them translated to the Cathedral in Gloucester. From this fragment, Whitworth has constructed a detailed and enthralling story centred around the fictional character Wulfgar, a young priest, who is tasked with retrieving Oswald’s bones from their hiding place. With the help of a variety of companions, Wulfgar braves the dangerous journey to snatch the bones from their resting place in Bardney, despite the best efforts of Aethelfleda’s rivals, Viking warlords and a particularly evil slave-trader and returns them to Gloucester. The novel is interesting not only for its deftly-handled plotting, well-developed characters and excellent moments of action, but in the way it handles the background of disordered and chaotic 10th century England, still divided into quarrelsome kingdoms and facing the continuing threat of the Danes, who have conquered large portions of eastern England and show every desire to add more territory to their domains. The tensions between English and Dane, Christian and pagan, warriors and church are always evident and inform so much of the story, and Whitworth has done a masterful job of creating the tense, uncertain atmosphere of the time, when England’s future was in a state of flux and rapid change in the circumstances of everybody was possible. The book is somewhat slow in the first half and the proliferation of characters and their motivations¬† can get confusing, but the second half is quick and sure, with events moving smoothly but rapidly to a conclusion. It seems this book is the first in a planned series, in which case I will be waiting with anticipation for the next instalment. An excellent read, not great literature by any means, but entertaining and informative. Thoroughly enjoyable.