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The Abagond Library

If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need. – Cicero

The Abagond Library does not exist – yet. But if I ever come into a lot of money then I would love to build it. It would be my own private library and retreat.

It is in the mountains in the middle of the woods, but less than two hours from New York. It is at the end of a little walkway made of white stones twisting through the woods. You do not see the library till the last minute, there in a small clearing.

It is a round building with tall windows and a dome on top. It has two floors.

The top floor is not much: just four small rooms where people can sleep overnight or work. They each have a bed, a little window and a computer that goes to the Internet.

The ground floor is grand but comfortable. To the north is a fireplace, to the east books from China, to the south books from India and the Muslim world and to the west books from the West. Between the books are tall windows.

Books: It would have all the great books from those parts of the world, in both English and the original tongues. It would have books to learn Chinese, Arabic, Sanskrit, Latin and Greek. It would have

  • Encyclopaedia Britannica
  • Oxford English Dictionary
  • Migne’s Patrologia
  • The books of Augustine’s library

On the south wall stands a grandfather clock that tells not just the hour and minute but the day, month and year.

If you look up you see stars and beasts painted gold on deep blue. It turns to match the sky. In the dark it lights up.

On the floor is a large Persian rug with a map of the world done in the style of the late 1500s. You can follow the map to the books from that part of the world.

Round the rug are large, comfortable chairs. You can sit in them for hours and read or talk and lose all sense of time. You can even fall asleep and not get a neck pain.

Next to each chair is a small table with a reading light. It is a place for your books and your cup of tea and maybe some cake.

In the middle is a large, round table.

Next to the fireplace is a door. Through it is a place where you can make tea or get something to eat. It is also the way to the bathroom and the steps that lead to the upper floor.

It is not just a place of books but also a place to get away and get some work done. Or be with friends for a weekend.

I should be able to live there at least a week at a time. If I did not have a family, it would be my house, or at least my country house – I would want a place in the city too.

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The Library of Alexandria (-295 to +646) was the largest library of ancient times. It stood for almost a thousand years. In 2002 a new Library of Alexandria was opened.

The ancient library had about 490,000 scrolls. That comes to about 100,000 of our books or, on a computer, 64 gigabytes. For us that would be a small-city library. In its time only the Library of Pergamum (the library that invented parchment) came close. In our time, the Library of Congress, now the largest, did not pass that size till the late 1800s.

The Library was conceived as a universal library: to have a copy of every book ever written. At 490,000 scrolls it probably came close that for Greek books.

It was not a free-standing, public library. It was part of the Museum of Alexandria, which in turn was part of the king’s estate. It was not a museum as we think of it but something like a research institute, which brought together some of the greatest minds of the age. It had labs, an observatory, a botanical garden and a zoo with a polar bear.

The Museum and Library gave us, among other things:

  • putting things in alphabetical order,
  • dividing a work into “books” (= separate scrolls),
  • the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament),
  • the works of Homer as we know them,
  • grammar books in the form we are used to seeing them,
  • punctuation,
  • the first good measurement of how big the earth is,
  • latitude and longitude,
  • heliocentrism.

The Library had a branch in the temple of Serapis. It was about a tenth the size but seems to have been opened to the public.

Ships that came to Alexandria were searched for books. Those that were found were copied: the owner got the copy, the Library kept the original! The Library sent buyers abroad to find the oldest copies of books. The older the better. If it had several old copies of the same book, it would work out what the original must have been. That is how the Library came to have the most trustworthy copies in the world.

It had the stolen originals of the plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides and books from the libraries of Aristotle and Theophrastus..

Languages: it had books in at least Greek, Egyptian, Aramaic (Babylonian) and Hebrew..

The Library was (partly) destroyed in:

  • -48 under Julius Caesar, who may have taken some of its books to Rome;
  • 272 under Aurelian to put down an uprising in Alexandria;
  • 295 under Diocletian to put down yet another uprising;
  • 391 under Theodosius when the Serapis branch was destroyed as a temple to idols;
  • 646 when Arabs destroyed what remained.

Of its books, 99% are lost forever. But if it were not for the Library, we would not have much of what do have, through copying and recopying, like the works of Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus.

Of the physical remains of the actual books that once sat in the Library, all we have are some torn pages.

– Abagond, 2006, 2015.

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If I could go back in time I would like to see Augustine’s library. When the Vandals burned down his town of Hippo in 430, by some miracle his library was saved. His books were sent to Italy soon after. I do not know what happened to them after that.

Even though his library is long gone, we can still get a sense of what was in it (apart from his own works) by the books and authors he mentions in his writings.

Here are the authors he mentions at least five times in the “Confessions” and the “City of God”, his two greatest and most general works. Those in colour are also in the Loeb Library and so are easy to get – the green ones in Greek and English, and the red ones in Latin and English. The numbers are for the number of mentions:

1000+ LXX, NT
149 Plato
131 Varro
85 Cicero
71 Porphyry
40 Virgil
39 Apuleius
31 Sallust
24 Cato
14 Homer
13 Ambrose
11 Plotinus, Labeo
10 Thales
9 Victorinus, Pythagoras
7 Jerome, Epicurus, Seneca
6 Hermes Trismegistus, Hippocrates, Eusebius, Terence, Anaximenes
5 Origen, Manichaeus

Augustine scholar  James J. O’Donnell adds these Christian authors:

  • Tertullian
  • Cyprian
  • Arnobius
  • Lactantius
  • Hilary of Poitiers

All but the last one was a fellow African. So were Apuleius, Plotinus, Victorinus, Terence and Origen.

Augustine was bad at Greek. He read Plato as translated into Latin by Victorinus.

Augustine got most of his Roman history from Sallust and most of his knowledge of Roman religion from Varro. What he knows of Roman law comes from Labeo.

If you read the authors that both Loeb and the Augustine libraries have, it would be hard to go wrong since you would avoid the individual tastes of either. But for myself I trust Augustine far more than Loeb: he lived back then and was a great mind.

So which books of these authors did he have? That is harder to say. These are the ones that I have seen him refer to (those that are in the Loeb Library I marked with stars):

It still needs work. I am going to look through his other writings to see if I can find more books. If I do, I will add them here.

Yes, this is my reading list in the making.

In the meantime I am reading the Church Fathers, in case you did not already figure that one out: Athanasius, Ambrose, Gregory of Nyssa (who I am reading now), Cyprian and Basil. And Augustine (his book on the Trinity).

Last year I read Augustine’s “Confessions” and his “City of God” – something I do every ten years or so – in addition to some of his other works. That is how I started the list above.

– Abagond, 2006, 2016.

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