One of the book’s early owners has drawn a hand and index finger which points, like an arrow, to passages worth remembering.In 44BC Cicero, the Roman Republic’s great orator, wrote a book for his son Marcus called de Officiis (“On Duties”).The lush edition in your correspondent’s hands—delightfully, and surprisingly, no gloves are needed to handle it—is one of the very first such copies. The vault that holds it and tens of thousands of other volumes, built in 1951, was originally meant to double as a nuclear-bomb shelter.
“No one will ever write anything more wise,” he said.
The book’s words have not changed; their vessel, though, has gone through relentless reincarnation and metamorphosis.
A thousand years later monks meticulously made copies by hand, averaging only a few pages a day.
Then, in the 15th century, de Officiis was copied by a machine.
It told him how to live a moral life, how to balance virtue with self-interest, how to have an impact. De Officiis draws on the views of various Greek philosophers whose works Cicero could consult in his library, most of which have since been lost. De Officiis was read and studied throughout the rise of the Roman Empire and survived the subsequent fall.
It shaped the thought of Renaissance thinkers like Erasmus; centuries later still it inspired Voltaire.
In its printed forms it has been a hardback and, more recently, a paperback, published in all sorts of editions—as a one off, a component of uniform library editions, a classic pitched at an affordable price, a scholarly, annotated text that only universities buy.
Cicero probably dictated de Officiis to his freed slave, Tiro, who copied it down on a papyrus scroll from which other copies were made in turn.
Within a few centuries some versions were transferred from scrolls into bound books, or codices.
FINGERS stroke vellum; the calfskin pages are smooth, like paper, but richer, almost oily.
The black print is crisp, and every Latin sentence starts with a lush red letter.