Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Monday, March 6, 2023

A library of ghosts

I'm currently working on a trilogy about the fall of civilization that is not, I hasten to state, inspired by current events.

It's actually a story I've been cogitating on since I was in college.  How would ordinary people cope with the collapse of the comfortable support network we're all so very used to?  The three books of the trilogy are set about five hundred years apart, and center around (respectively) the time when everything fell apart, a period of "Dark Ages" during which a significant chunk of what's left of humanity has lost technology and even literacy, and the time during which things come full circle and people begin to rediscover science and mathematics and all that comes with it.  In the second book, The Scattering Winds, there's a sequence when the main character comes across the mostly-intact remnants of a library from before the fall -- and is overwhelmed by the magnitude of what was lost:

"Do these books come from the Before Time?" Kallian asked in a near whisper.

Kasprit Seely nodded, looking around them at the shadowed shelves, laden with dust-covered books.  "Before the flood, you mean?  I’ve no doubt that many of them do.  During the Black Years, with the floods and the plagues, people were trying their hardest just to survive.  A lot of them didn’t, of course.  From what I’ve read, in the times before, there were a thousandfold more people than there are now, and they had ample food and living space and comfort and could spend their time reading and writing books.  But when a hundred years passes with deprivation and famine and death on your doorstep every day, a lot is forgotten.  You’ll see in some books there are numbers that I believe were some sort of system of keeping track of the passage of years.  But I’ve not been able to decipher how it’s to be read, nor how it relates to the present day.  Nowadays we simply track time by the year of the reign of the current king.  So this is the twenty-first year of the reign of High King Sweyn VII, long may he live."  Kasprit pulled a book off a shelf in the room they’d entered—the cover said The Diversity of Life by E. O. Wilson, and was adorned with a design of a brightly-colored beetle with long antennae.  He blew the dust off the top and opened the cover, flipped a couple of pages in, and rested the tip of his long index finger on a line that said, "Copyright 1992."

I thought about this scene when I came upon an article about an archaeological discovery made in 2017 in the center of the German city of Cologne.  Cologne is immensely old; it was the main settlement of the Ubii, a Germanic tribe that (unlike many of their neighbors) forged a strong and long-lasting alliance with the Romans.  Eventually, the place got so thoroughly Romanized that it was renamed Colonia Claudia Ara Agrippinensium -- "Colony of Claudius and the Altar of the Agrippinians."  This proved to be a clumsy appellation, and it was shortened to Colonia, which is where the modern name of Cologne comes from.

Well, it turns out in the center of modern Cologne, a city with a million inhabitants, are the remnants of what used to be the Library of Colonia.  At first, it was thought that the foundation was part of a stone-walled fortification, but when the archaeologists began to discover deep niches in the walls, they realized that its purpose was something altogether different.

"It took us some time to match up the parallels – we could see the niches were too small to bear statues inside," said Dirk Schmitz, of the Roman-Germanic Museum of Cologne, who participated in the research.  "But what they are are kind of cupboards for the scrolls.  They are very particular to libraries – you can see the same ones in the library at Ephesus."

The foundations of the Roman Library of Cologne [Image courtesy of the Romano-Germanic Museum of Cologne]

The library of Cologne in its heyday -- the middle of the second century C.E. -- is thought to have housed around twenty thousand scrolls, of which not a single one survives.  All that remains are the spaces they occupied, now inhabited only by the ghosts of long-gone books whose titles we'll never know.

When I read this article, I was struck with same feeling of longing and grief I get whenever I think about the Great Library of Alexandria and the other repositories of human knowledge.  It's what I tried to communicate in Kallian Dorn's character in The Scattering Winds; perhaps lost knowledge can be regained, but the creativity, hearts, and voices of the people who wrote these scrolls are gone forever.  Impermanence is part of reality, and -- in the words of the band Kansas -- "Nothing lasts forever but the Earth and sky."  But seeing the remains of this once-great library makes me mourn for what was housed there, even so.

I suspect I'm not the only one who feels this way.  And if time travel is ever invented, I think the Great Libraries of Antiquity tour is going to be sold out indefinitely.


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