Commentary: Wonders - The Sum of Human Knowledge?; July 1998; Scientific American Magazine; by Morrison,Morrison; 2 Page(s)
Taking stock often arises out of concern over loss. An early instance is the Museum at Alexandria, whose library, a gem of classical learning, was torched amid the decline of Hellenistic culture about 1,500 years ago. Not one papyrus remains of all its treasures, long reasonably judged as some 600,000 scrolls. Following the customary chapter divisions of the Homeric epics (preserved as widely held best-sellers), we can reckon one scroll to be the equivalent of 25 pages of print. By this measure, Alexandria shelved 50,000 average books, of which we have only a few vivid texts from other sources.
China, India, Iraq and Iran also had rich collections back then, although the oldest clay "manuscripts," like almost all carvings in stone, never stored reams of text. We roughly estimate the entire literature of that time--its quarter of a billion people matching the U.S. of today, but far fewer of them readers--at about 100,000 books.