[Reseña publicada en el Times Literary Supplement de 23 de octubre de 2020: https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/el-infinito-en-un-junco-irene-vallejo-review-david-jimenez-torres/ ]
It seems unlikely that a long essay by a little-known young classicist should become a literary phenomenon, especially as it is on a theme as apparently dry as the evolution of reading and writing in the ancient world. Yet Irene Vallejo’s El infinito en un junco (Infinity in a Reed) has been a bestseller in Spain this year. The work is structured around two main stories: the rise and fall of the Great Library of Alexandria, and the creation of a literary culture in ancient Rome. From these storylines many others branch out, including the development of written alphabets, library catalogues and a papyrus trade, and the legacies of Alexander the Great, Homer, Aristotle, Sappho, Martial and Seneca. Vallejo devotes particular attention to what we know about Hellenistic oral culture and its rescue from oblivion by the written word. There is also suggestive material on subjects including the roles of women, slaves and the illiterate.
Vallejo’s approach is both didactic and daring. The tone is far removed from scholarly convention and at times directly addresses “you, reader” (appropriate, given the subject matter). The writing is elegant and richly digressive. Vallejo retells experiences from her own life and finds links between the classical world and contemporary phenomena. She also draws on an impressive list of references. Borges, Joyce, Iron Maiden, H. P. Lovecraft, Umberto Eco, the internet, cassette tapes, the gulag, young Werther and Paul Auster are just a few of the ingredients that enrich the author’s points on censorship, the canon, bookstores, multiculturalism and more. These disparate reflections are united by two overriding sentiments. The first is a passionate vindication of the act of reading. The second is amazement at the survival of Greco-Roman culture through the centuries. Irene Vallejo’s unique work encourages us to marvel at humankind’s capacity to save large bodies of knowledge and experience from our own perishable nature.