Vanishing Points

Should we be concerned at the prospect that half of the world’s 6,500 or so languages will be lost within the current century? Is it a tragedy that the ancient world’s greatest library at Alexandria, Egypt, disappeared without a trace? What should be done about the Great Sphinx of Giza, as the very rock it is made of fractures and crumbles in the acrid atmosphere of Cairo? Does it matter that Trobriand Islanders have lost the art of building elaborately ornamented seagoing canoes? And does conserving endangered lemurs in Madagascar justify the loss of economic opportunities for local villagers?

These are the kinds of unanswerable questions addressed by Alexander Stille in his fragmented collection of essays. His accounts leap from the prehistoric to the contemporary and the settings are as diverse as the earth itself—Somaliland, Sicily, India, China. Each chapter tells the story of a passionate person driven by conviction to create continuity between the past and the future. Stille has traveled widely and has done much careful research. Many of his chapters tell fascinating stories; but the whole fails to add up to the sum of the parts, and the author does not resolve many of the questions he poses.

The past has been described as a chimera, so what good is knowledge of it? Are our efforts to document and conserve it mere hubris? Perhaps so, because many such efforts by our forbears have come to nothing as cities have been reduced to rubble, monuments destroyed, and libraries burned. To invest in the restoration and perpetuation of knowledge, one has to be an optimist and believe the future will be less tumultuous and destructive than the past.

Perhaps the most ambitious effort of all time to gather and conserve knowledge was the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Alexandria was founded by Macedonians, who conquered Egypt in the fourth century BC under Alexander the Great. The conqueror’s appointed regent, Ptolemy Soter, conceived the ambitious plan for a center of learning, calling it the Mouseion, the Temple of the Muses. When its collection was at its largest, the library reputedly contained 490,000 papyrus scrolls copied and collected from the entire literate (Western) world.

Alexandria flourished under the Macedonians, becoming an active intellectual center as it grew into the world’s first metropolis. Far ahead of its time, the Mouseion was, in effect, the world’s first think tank, with a staff of researchers who dedicated themselves, as Stille puts it, to a systematic evaluation of “different forms of kingship, legislation, and governance” in all parts of the then known world. How wonderful it would be to read their ruminations today. We might discover, indeed, that there is nothing new under the sun. But when Napoleon reached Alexandria in 1798, it was a glamourless fishing port of 7,000. No trace remained of the ancient city or its remarkable library.

Stille describes our society as being in …

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