(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)
The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s new book, Children of the Days: A Calendar of Human History (Nation Books). This selection originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com.
Memory on Legs
On the third day of the year 47 BC, the most renowned library of antiquity burned to the ground.
After Roman legions invaded Egypt, during one of the battles waged by Julius Caesar against the brother of Cleopatra, fire devoured most of the thousands upon thousands of papyrus scrolls in the Library of Alexandria.
A pair of millennia later, after American legions invaded Iraq, during George W. Bush’s crusade against an imaginary enemy, most of the thousands upon thousands of books in the Library of Baghdad were reduced to ashes.
Throughout the history of humanity, only one refuge kept books safe from war and conflagration: the walking library, an idea that occurred to the grand vizier of Persia, Abdul Kassem Ismael, at the end of the tenth century.
This prudent and tireless traveler kept his library with him. One hundred and seventeen thousand books aboard four hundred camels formed a caravan a mile long. The camels were also the catalogue: they were arranged according to the titles of the books they carried, a flock for each of the thirty-two letters of the Persian alphabet.
In 1901, the day after Queen Victoria breathed her last, a solemn funeral ceremony began in London.
Organizing it was no easy task. A grand farewell was due the queen who gave her name to an epoch and set the standard for female abnegation by wearing black for forty years in memory of her dead husband.
Victoria, symbol of the British Empire, lady and mistress of the nineteenth century, imposed opium on China and virtue on her own country.
In the seat of her empire, works that taught good manners were required reading. Lady Gough’s Book of Etiquette, published in 1863, established some of the social commandments of the times: one must avoid, for example, the intolerable proximity of male and female authors on library shelves.
Books could only stand together if the authors were married, such as in the case of Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
The World Shrinks
Today is International Mother Language Day.
Every two weeks, a language dies.
The world is diminished when it loses its human sayings, just as when it loses its diversity of plants and beasts.
In 1974 Angela Loij died. She was one of the last Ona Indians from Tierra del Fuego, way out there at the edge of the world. She was the last one who spoke their language.
Angela sang to herself, for no one else, in that language no longer recalled by anyone but her:
I’m walking in the steps
of those who have gone.
Lost, am I.
In times gone by, the Onas worshipped several gods. Their supreme god was named Pemaulk.
Pemaulk meant “word.”
Fame Is Baloney
Today, World Book Day, it wouldn’t hurt to recall that the history of literature is an unceasing paradox.