...[a] fascinating book ... It’s a much more interesting tale than it sounds. Bear in mind that not a single complete manuscript survives from the ancient world. Endless rolling and unrolling made brittle papyrus scrolls prone to falling apart. All we have from classical antiquity is a handful of pathetic fragments ... The book’s early Islamic sections are the most exciting. Moller brings the wonders of the medieval Muslim empires vividly to life and you’re left yearning for more (who couldn’t long to know about the city of Nisbis, described in passing as a 'city of white roses, wine and scorpions'). By the time she moves into Christendom, things feel more prosaic, and the idea of looking at seven cities means the structure can feel stop-start: a city rises, flourishes and is destroyed, then the next one does the same. Fortunately, Moller’s talent for historical colour keeps things lively.
Part history of ideas and part mystery story, Moller’s briskly paced chronicle opens in the great library in Alexandria, where Ptolemy discovered Euclid’s writings and used them as an indispensable guide to his own astronomical writings ... 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.
Moller enhances our understanding of the period from late antiquity until the Renaissance by highlighting the many cities where knowledge continued to thrive during the Medieval era, and where important manuscripts were lovingly translated and protected while elsewhere they had been reduced to ashes ... Visiting them through Moller’s imagination, the reader is invited to marvel at how multicultural the ancient world was, and to consider how the foundational knowledge of the Western world did not simply leap from the ancient Greeks to modern times but was painstakingly preserved, analyzed and innovated upon for almost 1,000 years.
...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] wonderful journey of discovery ...
...[an] unusual and well-crafted intellectual history ... With so many figures and ideas to discuss, some movements, such as Muslim Mu’tazili theology, are referenced without much explanation. But overall, this is an impressive, wide-ranging examination of what might be called premodern intellectual and cultural geography.