The timeless allure of books

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The Article

There is an ancient prayer, to the Virgin Mary: “To you we fly for shelter and protection, mother of God. You alone are chaste and blessed; do not disregard our prayers in this hour of need, but deliver us from danger.”

It may be found on papyrus, in the Rylands Library in Manchester, England.

It dates to the third century AD. The Greek text found its way independently into the liturgies of the Eastern Church, and the Latin into the Ambrosian rite of the Western Church, which is still celebrated in the diocese of Milan.

There are minor differences in wording, through translations, but all I’ve seen come to precisely the same points.

Having never personally examined the papyrus holdings in the Rylands Library, I have this text from a printed book: Early Christian Prayers, by the French Franciscan scholar A. Hamman, translated into English by Walter Mitchell, and published by Longmans, Green and Co. in 1961.

I can no longer remember how this book came into my library: probably through a university book sale. I only know that it has been with me for a long time.

The book is marked in ink on four pages. I gather a previous owner was Protestant, and found several of the earliest Christian liturgical passages too Catholic for his taste, taking particular offence at the word “priest,” which he was duly altering to “presbyter,” until he gave up.

Having ancestors, myself, who spent several centuries doing things like that, I smile knowingly.

Were I to find a “clean copy” of the book, however, I would probably buy it.

The Marian prayer is safely in a part of the book this previous owner never got to.

In general, I favour capital punishment for people who put marks in books. They’d be easy to catch, for almost all put their marks on only the first few pages. The effort of defacement seems itself to exhaust them, so that they seldom make it to the end of a long preface. But real book readers tend to skip the prefaces, anyway.

My article today is not intended as an essay in religious doctrine, except allusively.

The facts of my Christian religion, and of all religions, are as they are. Evidence can be effaced or suppressed; but then, as this case suggests, it will keep washing out of the sands of Egypt. The very next item in the book is a form of the Ave Maria, or Hail Mary, found written on both sides of a pottery shard under an ancient Coptic monastery, with all the offensive Catholic bits (“mother of God,” and so forth) duly in place.

Egypt is a big country, and until long after the seventh-century Islamic conquest, it was overwhelmingly Christian. In many ways it was the cradle of Christendom: the country from which missionaries embarked to shores as far distant as Ireland.

Another book on my shelves is Dioscorus of Aphrodito: His Work and His World (California, 1988). Through Greek and Coptic documents, it gives a truly thrilling picture of the Egypt that was, immediately before the conquests—not only the Muslim one, for the Sassanid Persians had been through a little before them, and rather more destructively.

For those with vague ideas of long “Dark Ages” after the Roman Empire fell, the book would be enlightening.

It touches on just one little corner of Egypt, a town that was well up the Nile, on high ground above the flooding river, under what is today a peasant farming village.

Only tiny fragments have been explored, archeologically, but it is clear from reading the papyrus sheaves that were found, accidentally, that this lost town was once the centre of a very rich and cultured district, whose life came suddenly to an end.

Books themselves, like the old scrolls and codices before them, have lives of their own. They wash out of the sands of Egypt, or out of university book sales, and the Sally Ann.

Most of this literature is trash, truly, but even the trash becomes interesting when it is old enough. Every physical object has a life, in the sense that—notwithstanding the famous Bishop Berkeley—it may go on existing, all by itself, even when no one is looking. And may contain explosive revelations.

I have been myself, since early childhood, when I first got the knack of deciphering the Roman alphabet, a creature of books, and a lover and hater of them.

It is hard for me to imagine the brave new world we are entering, when books themselves are being replaced by digital records which can themselves blink out with a quick change of technology. I’ve lived to a moment when the second-hand book trade is collapsing, for the first time in many centuries; when humane learning is disappearing from our universities, into the age of a new “conquest.”

On this feast day, of the Assumption of Mary, we should nevertheless remember that all won’t be destroyed.

Purity will always rise, and as in centuries long past, we may still fly for protection.

David Warren
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