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There Were Once a Million People in Babylon


When I was young I read a book called The Prince of Central Park by Evan H. Rhodes. It told the story of a teenage runaway who ends up living in a tree in New York's Central Park. It was an engaging young adult novel, and its themes and narrative voice have lingered with me for years. Used copies of the book are still floating around out there, but there were very few printings of the 1974 original, and so it is probably destined to become one of those titles which, like so many lesser-known books, eventually vanishes from our culture. Forty years from now, as I'm entering my nineties, I might be the only person alive who still remembers this book and its author.

Several months ago the bookstore obtained, and then sold, another "forgotten" book, this one from the late 1800s. It was Against Odds: A Detective Story by Lawrence L. Lynch, a somewhat prolific mystery writer from the turn of the century. Having never heard of this author, I researched further and discovered that Lawrence L. Lynch was a pseudonym for Emma Murdock Van Deventer, a woman who ... perhaps ... never existed. (You can learn more here: http://mysteryfile.com/blog/?p=1093.) In any case, I was struck by the fact that Lynch, or Van Deventer, or whoever, was a successful author is his/her day, and yet that part of our literary history is fading into a distant past. And that, inevitably, led me to Sophocles.

Nearly 2,500 years ago, the Greek playwright Sophocles lived in Athens and chronicled the rise and fall of the Athenian empire during his ninety-year life-span. Today he is best known for his plays Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Electra, each of which has greatly influenced the nature of drama, literature, and psychology in the western world. In the Penguin Classics edition of his Three Theban Plays, the brief author biography states that, "(Sophocles) wrote over a hundred plays for the Athenian theater ... Only seven of his tragedies are now extant." Let's stop and ponder that for a moment. Sophocles is known for the seven plays that happened to survive two-and-a-half millennia ... but there might have been a hundred more that we will never read or experience. What if those plays had survived? What if western culture had been so inundated with Sophoclean theater that we now held yearly Sophocles festivals, and modern dramatic works would all be expected to include a Greek chorus? How much of our current literary culture is the result of luck and chance with regard to which works survive and which perish?

From the 3rd century BC until the Roman conquest of Egypt in 30 BC, the Ancient Library of Alexandria served as one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. At its height, the library is estimated to have contained from 40,000 to 400,000 books in the form of papyrus scrolls. It is now believed that most of the library was destroyed by fire, first by the army of Julius Caesar in 48 BC and again by Emperor Aurelian in the 270s AD. Such a monumental loss of cultural knowledge is immeasurable; we cannot begin to imagine what may have been contained in those scrolls, so easily turned to ash. But it does push us to contemplate the vast amounts of other works that may have been lost to us throughout history, and how our lives and societies might be different today if it weren't for that one fire or war or flood that resulted in the permanent removal of those books from existence.

The writer Thornton Wilder commented in his play Our Town, and later in his novel The Eighth Day, that "...There were once a million people in Babylon." He invited us to consider all those stories in all those cultures throughout human history, most of which were never told, or if they were told, did not survive. From the teenage boy in 1970s New York, to the detective in 1894 Chicago, to the young hero in ancient Greece, everyone has a story, and literature graces us with only a small fraction of those individual human dramas. And as the number of actual printed books in the world dwindles among the rise of electronic literature, we can all make an effort to preserve and cherish the books that still remain on our shelves, in hopes that these stories will be shared with curious readers decades and centuries and millennia from now.

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