January 20, 2007

Magnus liber magnum malum

In English: A big book is a big evil.

After the proverbs I've cited in praise of books over the past several days, I thought it would be good to point out that not every book is perfect. And when a book is long, you suffer its imperfections at much greater length!

This Latin saying is based on a sentiment expressed in Greek by the poet Callimachus. Just as the Latin saying is very easy to understand, so is the Greek: mega biblion, mega kakon. The Greek "mega" means "big" (as in megavitamins), "biblion" means "book" (as in the Bible), "kakon" means "bad, evil" (as in cacophony).

As a student of Latin literature, you have probably heard of Callimachus in the context of the Roman poet Catullus and the other "Novi Poetae," "New Poets," who were inspired the innovations of the Hellenistic poets and the literary culture of Alexandria in Greek Egypt. Callimachus lived during the third century B.C.E. A native of Cyrene, he worked in Alexandria at the great Library there. Callimachus advocated highly artful poetry, with each exquisite word carefully chosen. Although Callimachus denounced big books, he was nevertheless a prolific writer, although most of his writings have been lost and survive only in fragments. You can read some of the surviving Hymns by Callimachus online at theoi.com.

Proverbs, of course, celebrate the spirit of brevity, so I think that a proverb is a very appropriate way to denounce the dangers of big books!

And here, briefly, is today's proverb read out loud:

59. Magnus liber magnum malum.

The number here is the number for this proverb in Latin Via Proverbs: 4000 Proverbs, Mottoes and Sayings for Students of Latin.

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