I’m not thinking of how long it takes to read a book but of how long its effects can be felt, and of the strange phenomenon that even literature written in other times, on the basis of assumptions radically different to our own and, occasionally, hugely alien to us, can continue to speak to us—and, not only that, but can tell us something about who we are, something that we would not have seen otherwise, or would have seen differently.
Some sixty years before the birth of Christ, Lucretius wrote his only known work, “On the Nature of Things,” a didactic poem about how the world is made of atoms. The atomic reality that Lucretius describes is not an isolated phenomenon—it is not a separate realm of electrons and nuclei, electromagnetic fields, particles and waves. In Lucretius’ poem, the atomic dimension exists side by side with the world as we see it every day, with its grassy plains and rivers, its bridges and buildings, its cows and goats, its birds and its sky. Lucretius knew that the two domains are sides of the same coin, that the one does not exist without the other. There is little doubt in my mind that the world today would look different if the progress of science had been anchored in our human reality instead of losing sight of it, for in that recognition lies an obligation and an unceasing correction: we are no greater than the forest—we are no greater even than the tree. And we are made of the same constituents.