Ashurbanipal’s Library, Queen Readers, and the Intolerably Stupid

Leave a comment

May 23, 2022 by libroshombre

            Once upon a time, back when literacy was really rare, no one ever read silently to themselves, and all writing was intended to be heard.  In his chapter titled “The Silent Readers” from his book, “A History of Reading,” Alberto Manguel described when the pre-saint Augustine visited a close friend of his mother, the famous bishop and future St. Ambrose, he made a startling discovery.  “Ambrose was a small, clever looking man with big ears and a neat black beard that diminished rather than filled out his angular face. He was an extremely popular speaker; his symbol in later Christian iconography was the beehive, emblematic of eloquence.” However, Augustine, “found himself unable to ask the old man the questions about matters of the faith that were troubling him because, when Ambrose was not eating a frugal meal or entertaining one of his many admirers, he was alone in his cell, reading.  Ambrose was an extraordinary reader. ‘When he read,’ said Augustine, ‘his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still.’”

            How unusual was silent reading?  “Augustine’s description of Ambrose’s silent reading (including the remark that he never read aloud) is the first definite instance recorded in Western literature.”  Manguel also wondered what it must have been like to concentrate in a large ancient library and noted “Written words, from the days of the first Sumerian tablets, were meant to be pronounced out loud, since the signs carried implicit, as if it were their soul, a particular sound … Faced with a written text, the reader had a duty to lend voice to the silent letters, the scripta, and to allow them to become, in the delicate biblical distinction, verba, spoken words-spirit.”

            One wrinkle in that old style of reading (and a sure-fire way to limit literacy as rulers then preferred) stemmed from their books themselves; “the letters that composed them did not need to be separated into phonetic unities but were strung together in continuous sentences. The direction in which the eyes were supposed to follow these reels of letters varied from place to place and from age to age; the way we read a text today in the Western world-from left to right and from top to bottom-is by no means universal. Some scripts were read from right to left (Hebrew and Arabic), others in columns, from top to bottom (Chinese and Japanese); a few were read in pairs of vertical columns (Mayan); some had alternate lines read in opposite directions, back and forth-a method called boustrophedon, ‘as an ox turns to plough’, in ancient Greek.”   The Aztecs reading method “meandered across the page like a game of Snakes and Ladders, the direction being signaled by lines or dots.”

            Silent reading came to mind while silently reading “Winged Bull: The Extraordinary Life of Henry Layard, the Adventurer Who Discovered the Lost City of Neneveh,” by Jeff Pearce.  I borrowed it from our public library upon seeing the word “Nineveh,” for in library school I became interested in Layard’s unearthing the famous Library of Nineveh, aka the Library of Ashurbanipal, who was the last, and most brutal, Great King of Assyria, ruling from 669 to 631 BCE.  Wikipedia says “Ashurbanipal was known as a tenacious martial commander; however, he was also a recognized intellectual who was literate, and a passionate collector of texts and tablets.”  Being a powerful bibliophile, he ordered his subject states to send him copies of every book they possessed.  Ashurbanipal was a scribe himself and sent his scribes throughout his empire verifying texts and collecting books.  In addition, Ashurbanipal used war loot as a means of stocking his library. Because he was known for being cruel to his enemies, Ashurbanipal was able to use threats to gain materials from Babylonia and surrounding areas.”  Since scribes are the ancient professional ancestors of today’s librarians, and since old Ashurbanipal trained as scribe, that means that, along with Casanova, Elvis, and J. Edgar Hoover, he’s one of us!

            Be that as it may, the real-life Henry Layard out-adventured Indiana Jones, striking off at age 22 in 1839 with a companion to travel overland from London to Ceylon with little money (a letter of credit for 300 pounds) and no experience.  However, he did possess a rabid curiosity, very little trepidation in satisfying his inquisitiveness, an artist’s eye and hand, and a good-hearted nature.  He was also a voracious reader.  That sufficed him through encounters with the wild, impoverished nomads and fierce mountain warlords inhabiting the lands between Constantinople and Bombay.  I commend his biography, but to get back to silent reading, Layard’s personal boyhood servant was a French prisoner of war from the Battle of Waterloo, was named Pachot, who eventually retired and moved to Belgium where his daughter became the Queen of Belgium’s personal reader.

            A bit of research revealed that a lot of royalty have appointed “readers to the queen” who were skilled and entertaining narrators.  For example, a visit to the “Georgian Papers Online” site of the Windsor Castle Archives and Royal Library revealed an overview of the British Queen Charlotte’s daily routine in 1789, which included “In the afternoon, the Reader to the Queen, Monsieur Jean Andre Deluc, would usually attend the Queen for an hour or two.”  Deluc was a Swiss geologist and meteorologist who, after establishing a sound scientific reputation, went bankrupt and moved to England in 1773, where he was immediately made a member of the Royal Society and became Queen Charlotte’s favorite reader for the next forty years.  His sideline was making scientific instruments, especially ones measuring humidity. 

            One of Deluc’s hygrometers utilized ivory bulbs that allowed mercury to move down past the bulb when it grew wet from humidity.   Deluc bitterly feuded with Horace-Benedict de Saussure, a competitor who invented a hair hygrometer.  “Strands of hair can relax and lengthen when the humidity increases, and then contract again when the humidity decreases. In fact, the rate of change in the length of hair strands is so dependable that they can actually be used as the basis for a hygrometer” according to, who also tells how to make one.

            One of the tougher customers Layard encountered in his Asian Minor wanderings was Petar II Petrović-Njegoš, a twenty-seven-year-old Montenegrin giant poet who was well over seven feet tall and an orthodox “prince-bishop” ruling one of the larger of the many clans in that mountainous land.  The website said that for that place and time, “Njegos was a cultured man who had read much, meditated much, and experienced much. He was for quite a long time the only educated man in his country. Most of the priests were illiterate.” Njegos was determined to unify all the clans to better oppose the Ottoman Turks, Austro-Hungarians, and the Russians but failed.  Nonetheless, he did compose “The Mountain Wreath,” the national poem of the Serbians.  “What Shakespeare is to England, Njegos is to Serbia: her greatest and most nationally representative poet.  Njegos’s finest work, ‘The Mountain Wreath,’ has had a success unparalleled by any other product of Serbo-Croatian literature, both at home and abroad.”  Only one photo of Njegos exists; it’s impressive and can be seen on his Wikipedia article.

            For those scoring at home, Ashurbanipal, Layard, Deluc, and Njegos were all avid readers. One the flip side, the headline for a 2019 study from the American Academy of Neurology reads, “People Who Cannot Read May Be Three Times As Likely To Develop Dementia.”  Or as Jane Austen put it in “Northanger Abbey”, “The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: