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The Map of Knowledge

A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found
Narrated by: Susan Duerden
Length: 8 hrs and 46 mins
Categories: History, Ancient
4 out of 5 stars (17 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

The Map of Knowledge is an endlessly fascinating book, rich in detail, capacious and humane in vision.” (Stephen Greenblatt, author of The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, winner of the Pulitzer Prize) 

After the Fall of Rome, when many of the great ideas of the ancient world were lost to the ravages of the Dark Ages, three crucial manuscripts passed hand to hand through seven Mediterranean cities and survived to fuel the revival of the Renaissance - an exciting debut history. 

The foundations of modern knowledge - philosophy, math, astronomy, geography - were laid by the Greeks, whose ideas were written on scrolls and stored in libraries across the Mediterranean and beyond. But as the vast Roman Empire disintegrated, so did appreciation of these precious texts. Christianity cast a shadow over so-called pagan thought, books were burned, and the library of Alexandria, the greatest repository of classical knowledge, was destroyed. 

Yet some texts did survive and The Map of Knowledge explores the role played by seven cities around the Mediterranean - rare centers of knowledge in a dark world, where scholars supported by enlightened heads of state collected, translated, and shared manuscripts. In 8th century Baghdad, Arab discoveries augmented Greek learning. Exchange within the thriving Muslim world brought that knowledge to Cordoba, Spain. Toledo became a famous center of translation from Arabic into Latin, a portal through which Greek and Arab ideas reached Western Europe. Salerno, on the Italian coast, was the great center of medical studies, and Sicily, ancient colony of the Greeks, was one of the few places in the West to retain contact with Greek culture and language. Scholars in these cities helped classical ideas make their way to Venice in the 15th century, where printers thrived and the Renaissance took root. 

The Map of Knowledge follows three key texts - Euclid's Elements, Ptolemy's The Almagest, and Galen's writings on medicine - on a perilous journey driven by insatiable curiosity about the world. 

“A lovely debut from a gifted young author. Violet Moller brings to life the ways in which knowledge reached us from antiquity to the present day in a book that is as delightful as it is readable.” (Peter Frankopan, author of The Silk Roads

“A sumptuous, glittering, endlessly fascinating book, written with passion, verve, and humor.” (Catherine Nixey, author of The Darkening Age)

©2019 Violet Moller (P)2019 Random House Audio

Critic Reviews

“Euclid’s Elements is the seed from which my subject of mathematics grew. Thanks to this fascinating and meticulous account, I’ve had a glimpse of just how Euclid’s text, together with works by Ptolemy and Galen, blossomed as they wound their way through the centuries and the seven cities at the heart of Violet Moller’s book. What an adventure.” (Marcus du Sautoy, professor of mathematics at the University of Oxford and author of The Music of the Primes

“An epic treasure hunt into the highways and byways of stored knowledge across faiths and continents.” (John Agard, poet and judge, Royal Society of Literature 2016 Jerwood Award)

“The author meticulously and enthusiastically unwinds the ‘dense, tangled undergrowth of manuscript history’ in seven cities.... Moller enlivens her history with stories about young scholars who dedicated their lives to preserving these valuable texts.... A dramatic story of how civilization was passed on and preserved.” (Kirkus Reviews)

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One note narrator and fire-hose names and data

While the depth of research and information in this read is excellent, the way in which it's brought to light is less than palatable. There are ways to write history (Montefiore's "Jerusalem" for instance) and then there are reads like this. A different narrator might make all the difference (as it certainly does with Jerusalem)- every single sentence in this one ends with the same down-turn in pitch; probably excellent as a soporific.
It might even be better in print - thrown at you scatter-gun style are many, many names of middle eastern decent, including multiple (correctly) tacked on patronymics stretching back generations - these are difficult (at least for my ear) to come to terms with and make connections. Seeing them written might alleviate some of the bewilderment. There is also the usual burden of historians - the lack of creativity in European names of old: too many actors with identical names. This of course is not the fault of the author but I have seen this handled better elsewhere.
To its credit, the book tries to "storyfy" the history, following some key players who dragged books about and created translations to disseminate the knowledge to the west, but it suffers from the author having to cram so many centuries into a readable tome and creates name/date whiplash in a non-scholar reader.
One topic worth the read is the sheer volume of more correct knowledge held in the books of the middle east that took centuries to arrive in Europe, predating, for instance, a Copernican heliocentric solar system by many hundreds of years. How much farther ahead would we be as a species if that information had been propagated sooner. A weather bell for current nationalistic thinking.

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Why is the Voice of "Civilization" Always British?

Great Book. Bad Production Choices.

The producers choose to go with the cliched British narrator - the media's constant and invariable "voice of civilization" straight out of central casting.

Never mind the book is explicitly ABOUT how the West has deliberately ignored or derogated the contributions of non-western intellectual traditions to world knowledge.

It's not even stupid. It's perverse.

0 of 1 people found this review helpful