STARRED REVIEW
May 14, 2019

The Map of Knowledge

By Violet Moller
Violet Moller’s The Map of Knowledge charts a breathtaking path through the political, religious and cultural forces that ensure some books survive while others are lost to history.
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Focusing on the origins, translation, transmission, interpretation and reinterpretation of three ancient and enduring texts—Euclid’s Elements, Ptolemy’s Almagest and Galen’s medical writings—Violet Moller’s The Map of Knowledge charts a breathtaking path not only through the life of a book but also through the political, religious and cultural forces that ensure some books survive while others are lost to history.

Part history of ideas and part mystery story, Moller’s briskly paced chronicle opens in the great library in Alexandria, were Ptolemy discovered Euclid’s writings and used them as an indispensable guide to his own astronomical writings. Later, Galen discovered both Euclid and Ptolemy in this library and produced his own voluminous writings on medicine.

Moller then conducts a whirlwind tour of the lives of these books as they make their way from Alexandria to Baghdad, Córdoba, Toledo, Salerno, Palermo and Venice—collected by scholars and rulers in repositories and preserved and translated into new languages that gave the original texts new life for other cultures. In Baghdad, for example, the ninth-century caliph Harun established the House of Wisdom, where scribes copied manuscripts and scholars translated them—including the works of Euclid, Ptolemy and Galen—from Greek into Arabic. When Baghdad’s fortunes waned in the late ninth century, Muslims carried the impulse to preserve and transmit these texts to Córdoba, the great Spanish center of learning that drew scholars from near and far in the tenth century. Later, Moller brings us and these texts into 15th-century Venice, where we witness the work of printer Aldus Manutius, whose innovations with the printing press enabled these texts to be widely disseminated.

Moller delivers a brilliant tour-de-force in the history of ideas, illustrating the sometimes-messy ways that important ancient texts endure over time and encouraging us to consider the religious and intellectual tolerance that often led to the desire to preserve and transmit these books.

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The Map of Knowledge

The Map of Knowledge

By Violet Moller
Doubleday
ISBN 9780385541763

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