Posts Tagged ‘Isidore of Seville’

Ten of the strangest books in my library – part one

August 15, 2019

Liber Usualis

This is a very thick and weighty tome, originally published, I think, for use in monasteries. It contains the music for the main services, in plainchant four-stave notation. I bought it many years ago, not for the music but for the texts of various now long-lost Latin services, and it’s supplemented by a copy of the Tridentine Missale Romanum with Latin rubrics, and also a copy of the Latin Vulgate Bible.

Adolf in Blunderland

This satire after the manner of Lewis Carroll, complete with Tenniel-style illustrations and reworkings of almost all of the songs from Alice, mocking the Nazis and their leaders, is from the mid 1930s, obviously in the days before the real dangers of the Nazi project were clear to many, and knockabout humour was thought sufficient. I bought it when I was still at school, with five shillings – a sizeable sum in those days – of my pocket money. Unfortunately, even though I’ve looked after it carefully, it is showing its age.

Zbior Nazwisk Szlachty

You wouldn’t have expected the Polish communist authorities to have allowed the publication of such a facsimile, of a book which originally appeared in 1805 and is an index of the names of the Polish nobility. It was a gift to my father, which I inherited – our family name is in the book, and it’s a genuine one rather than one from the days when everyone was scrambling to have a gentrified name; it also means we have a coat of arms. Before you all grovel at the thought of my greatness, I should point out two important details: firstly that the nobility was abolished in 1919, and secondly that it was the name that was important, not wealth or property. A peasant could have a noble name, which brought respect and standing along with it, just as it did to a rich man. If you were among the 25%+ of the nation with a name, you could theoretically take part on the election of the king. Yes, you read that right…

Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies (along with Pliny’s Natural History, Ibn Khaldun: The Muqaddimah, and The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition)

I’ve had a soft spot for Isidore for a long time, long before the Vatican named that early encyclopaedist patron saint of the internet. In that curious time known as the Dark Ages, after the disappearance of the Western Roman Empire, monks sought to preserve knowledge, and Isidore complied twenty brief books of etymologies in which he attempted a taxonomy and collation of everything that was known. He ranges widely through arts and sciences; everything looks to God, and the gaps are haunting and the naivete charming or amusing at different times. As we now know, Arab savants also preserved and built upon the knowledge of the ancients, and two of the other texts I mention offer knowledge from their perspective, from mediaeval times. In our days, when we think we know so much, and with such certainty, I find it humbling and refreshing to see the sum total of knowledge, and the picture of the world from the viewpoint of an ancient Roman, a seventh century Spanish monk, or an Arab scientist. Perhaps far in the future, others will look back at our days and our learning and interpretations in a similar way…

Edward Bellamy: Looking Backward (my edition)

I’ve written about the weirdness of this edition here. I commend the utopian vision to you as an interesting and curious read: the idea of a socialist United States is a marvellous one, but still as far off as it was back in 1887.

A tour of my library – part four

August 12, 2019

The travel writing section is the largest new one in my library, growing over the last fifteen or twenty years as my interest in travel writing has developed. It’s not systematic: there are areas I have deliberately explored and others I ignore completely. Deserts and the ancient Silk Roads both fascinate me. So, there is much on the Near East, the Middle East and Central Asia, lots on Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but little on Africa unless it’s the Sahara, and very little on the United States. The colder parts of the world don’t figure much, either. And, as I have explained in other, more detailed posts on travel writing, I have by and large tended to avoid recent writing because travel has become tourism, too easy relatively speaking: I like to read about exploration and travel where rather more effort and difficulty is involved. For this reason, I have collected a fair number of accounts of travel from several centuries ago, and also accounts by non-Westerners, for their different perspective on the world. I think my most interesting discovery was probably Ibn Battutah, a traveller from the Arab world who travelled in the early fourteenth century and far more widely than did Marco Polo

I’m gradually disposing of my reference section, which, to put it bluntly, has pretty much been made redundant by the internet: there will be an article, invariably reliable, well-referenced and usually with numerous links, in Wikipedia. My local library now offers me the OED online for nothing. I have one or two literature reference books, and quite a few atlases, and they will now suffice. Maps on the internet do not cut the mustard for me. I have the large Times Comprehensive Atlas which I love, and various historical atlases and collections of old maps. I did, however, recently splash out on Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies translated into English. He was a seventh century encyclopaedist who put together and wrote down everything that was known in his time, and is now rightly the patron saint of the internet. It is fascinating to contemplate how others viewed the world and interpreted it in the past, and to realise that at some future date, our world-view may seem just as quaint to our successors.

Some readers of this blog will also know of my love of JS Bach’s music, and there is a small section of the library consisting of biographies, guides to his world and the places he lived and worked, and some reference books which I use when listening to his church cantatas. The most useful of these was the first book I ever acquired from Amazon in the days before it became the behemoth I now strive to avoid Melvyn Unger’s Handbook to Bach’s Sacred Cantata Texts. It contains texts of all the cantatas, in German, word-for-word translated and then a proper English version, set out in the manner of a classics ‘crib’ from many years ago. It also has all the relevant biblical readings to go with the texts, so that everything I need as I listen is on a single page.

There’s a sizeable religion and theology section, with bibles and other church service books, books on the history of religion, Christianity and Islam, which I have developed an interest in over the years; this joins up with my fascination with travel in those parts of the world. There’s also a reasonable number of books on Quakerism. The oddest book in the collection is probably a fine copy of the Liber Usualis which I acquired secondhand for a song when I was a student in Liverpool, and recently discovered was worth quite a lot. It’s basically a monastic service book with music, for the masses of every day of the church year; the music is four-stave plainchant, and the rubrics are all in church Latin too.

On the quality of information

January 27, 2019

I’ve always read quite widely, beyond my own specialisms as an English teacher and student of literature and into other areas which I could understand, and used to find it rather disconcerting as a teacher when I would mention a fact or some information outside our subject, and a student would ask, “Sir, how come you know so much stuff?’ because it seemed natural and normal to know such things. I don’t think I ever gave a satisfactory answer to the question, but one of my lines was that I always liked to learn a new fact each day, and would offer them that fact as their knowledge gained ration for that day.

There is now an incomprehensible amount of information available, at most people’s fingertips, instantly. Several billion pages out there on the web, last time anyone informed me. And yet, how reliable, how accurate, how findable? The school librarian used to describe the internet as the world’s largest library, but with all the books thrown randomly on the floor.

Back in the past, a learned person could know everything. Reading Pliny’s Natural History is eye-opening: that’s what was known about the world back then. A few hundred years later, in the early seventh century, Isidore of Seville wrote his Etymologies, which has a claim to be the world’s first real encyclopaedia. In a few hundred pages we find everything that was known: as the author, he knew it all… and for that, he has been named patron saint of the internet by the Catholic Church.

Athanasius Kircher lived in the seventeenth century; a polymath, some regard him as the last person able to know everything that was known, in the days before the explosion of knowledge in all areas.

I love the internet and the access it gives me to so much information, and I have learned to be very cautious and very sceptical too. Wikipedia is a stunning resource and one I am happy occasionally to donate money to, and one of its virtues is that anyone can contribute to it, but this obviously raises the question about how reliable some of its information is. Back in the old days of printed reference books, these were compiled by experts, checked before printing, and expensive; the gold standard for more than two centuries was the Encyclopaedia Britannica. But who goes there as their first call for information now? A search for anything throws up hundreds or thousands of hits; who ever goes beyond the first couple of pages? And how many look carefully at the source of the information? If we are dubious, we can’t easily check, so we just move on to another result.

In former times, we could assume that information was accurate because of how it was collated and disseminated; nowadays I suggest it doesn’t often occur to us even to question the accuracy of what we find in a web search, and this does disturb me. Inaccuracy is possible accidentally, because of carelessness, and when anyone can post information online, inaccurate information can be deliberate, and increasingly is; if we are not alerted to engage our critical faculties, this is surely dangerous.

Money is involved behind the scenes, of course. The Encyclopaedia Britannica cost hundreds of pounds, and once printed, a good deal of its information was already out-of-date. Smaller reference books – dictionaries, gazetteers, atlases and the like – all cost money. Nowadays because “free” information is available in vast quantities, we feel entitled to have it for nothing. A good deal of quality information online is only available by subscription, and our first reaction when faced with a need to shell out for information is to look elsewhere for a free source. This is even more true when it comes to news, current affairs, and analysis thereof: we used to buy newspapers and read them without too much complaint; now we expect our news free.

We were shaped – manipulated, perhaps – in the past by the power of the wealthy to control the publication and dissemination of knowledge: no change there, then. And it continues today in different ways, and not many of us are wary enough. All I can hope to do is make more people aware of this; I have no solutions to offer to the problem.

August favourites #28: author

August 28, 2018

51aPP6fCRbL._AC_US218_The idea of someone who is widely knowledgeable – a polymath? – is an old one, harder to countenance in these times of so much knowledge and data. It’s been a long time since it was possible for one person to ‘know’ everything that could be known – Isidore of Seville wrote the first encyclopaedia in the seventh century, and Athanasius Kircher in the seventeenth is regarded by some as the last person who knew it all. But in our own times, I was always impressed by the Italian writer, critic and philosopher Umberto Eco, who produced novels, art criticism, philosophy, works on linguistics, and – in his own language, and as far as I know, still largely untranslated – regular newspaper columns on an incredible variety of learned and light-hearted topics. The Name of the Rose is probably my all-time favourite novel. I’d really like to have met him, and I don’t say that about a lot of my heroes.

I’m doing something different for the holiday month of August, writing about some of my favourites: poems, plays, music, art and other things, a short piece on a different topic each day. The categories are random, as are the choices within them, meaning that’s my favourite that day, and is subject to change… And I will try and explain why each choice is special for me. As always, I look forward to your comments.

On perspectives (2)

July 5, 2017

Isidore of Seville wrote what is generally acknowledge to have been the world’s first encyclopaedia in the seventh century CE; he is now the patron saint of the internet (!). Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, may have been the last human to have known everything that was known; today we have the web, billions of pages of… what? I’ve never forgotten a librarian friend describing the internet as an enormous library, with all the books thrown in a heap on the floor.

It’s clearly an aspect of growing older, but I do find myself thinking that there isn’t enough time to read all the things I want to read, to understand all the stuff I want to understand, to visit all the places I want to visit: I find myself mentally deferring things until my next existence…

So, how does one cope with the vastness of the world and its possibilities? The easy way is gradually to retreat into one’s own personal bubble, a relatively narrow, restricted world, and stay in it. It’s the Brexit world to me, for want of a better image. And not only is this an easy choice, it’s also often an unconscious choice. Or one can try to engage with the world in some of its vastness, and attempt to comprehend it in various ways: I read about it, talk to people about it, travel and read about the travels of others.

What sense can one person make of the world? Here one runs into the dangers of moral relativism: let’s try and be as open-minded as possible, accepting that there are very different societies with very different behaviours, morals, customs which we are not part of, therefore let’s not be judgemental… and suddenly we may find ourselves silently condoning genital mutilation or stoning people to death for adultery and other such enormities. By what right and criteria do we allow ourselves then to pass judgements on, to evaluate others’ behaviours? Somewhere way back in my studies of renaissance French literature I remember an adage from someone, which I found wise then and still do now: anything which brings pleasure and does no harm to others, should be allowed. And yet the terms are somewhat elusive, even here… At least this takes us beyond the narrowness of ‘what I like’ and ‘what I understand’.

I do find the world a very challenging place; I know it’s the only place I have to live, though there have been times when I’ve fantasised about moving to the depths of Siberia or somewhere else where I might avoid the rest of the species. I’m astonished at some of the amazing things we have done – such as the exploration of the world and outer space, and travelling to the moon – and some of the geniuses that have emerged from humanity – Bach and Shakespeare to mention my favourite examples – but in my darker moments I do feel that we really are not a very intelligent species, and perhaps do not deserve to survive. Then, when I remember a book like Olaf Stapledon‘s brilliant Last and First Men, which takes humanity several billion years into the future, I sorrow at the vanishing of our achievements in the mists of time, a true Ozymandias moment.

I think I like challenges (moderate ones, at least), and I do like learning new things. The older I get, the less I realise I really know, and I suspect that this is a function of age. The world, and the understanding of it, is a quest that has to go on forever, for me personally at least.

On the two cultures

March 14, 2017

Years ago C P Snow wrote about two cultures, the arts and the sciences, and the gulf between them. I oversimplify greatly, I know, but it’s an opposition that I regularly return to in terms of my own life and experience.

I’m clearly on the arts side, from my studies at school, at university and my teaching career, as well as my wider interests throughout life: languages, literature, history, religion for starters. I was about to say that science never really got a look in, when I recalled an interest in astronomy from a very young age, and that at primary school, my best friend and I wanted to be the first men on the moon (!). He’s now a Russian Orthodox priest, by the way, or was when I last had news of him…

At boarding school, there was no real opportunity to study science properly, and so the die was cast, I suppose. Maths was interesting, as our teacher was one of the pioneers of what was called ‘modern maths’ in those days; I understood and liked a good deal of it as far as O Level where I managed grade 2, but it was arithmetic, especially mental arithmetic, that was always my strongest point. I retained my interest in astronomy, even going to evening classes at one point, but whenever it strayed into the realms of maths and physics, I have to say that I very quickly got lost, and began to develop a headache. I genuinely do seem to have a mental block about some things once they go beyond a certain level… How much of this is because of my background, my upbringing and how much is the real me, as it were?

I do stray out of the arts bubble in my reading. I’ve long been interested in the calendar and its development over time, and there’s a fair amount of arithmetic involved in that. I’ve read some works on science and astronomy – Carl Sagan on the search for life elsewhere in the cosmos I found particularly interesting, and I have actually read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time, though how much of it I understood I cannot honestly say. I like to read about the development of human knowledge in all fields, and find books like Pliny’s Natural History and Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies fascinating because they show us learning about ourselves and our world, developing our understanding over time. This relentless desire for knowledge, and the pursuit of it, are surely one of the things which make us human and allow us to be proud of our species.

I’ve also found myself wondering about gender-related issues in connection with the arts/sciences dichotomy. I have the picture that maths and sciences are largely a male field, and the arts rather more female, and yet I know this is clearly a gross oversimplification. But do some subject areas and ways of thinking lend themselves more readily to brains of one or the other gender, despite the opening up of opportunities in recent decades? And what does this say, if anything, about female scientists and mathematicians of whom I have known many, or male students of literature and languages, of whom I have known rather fewer. And what about me?

Is the separation between arts and sciences inevitable, a result of there nowadays being so much knowledge in so many areas that it’s impossible for anyone to acquire mastery of everything? It has been said that Athanasius Kircher, in the seventeenth century, was the last man who knew everything, as in the amount of available learning and knowledge was capable of being mastered by a single person. I don’t think that the separation does us any good, in terms of our society, or our education systems; I have often felt intellectually poorer for my lack of scientific and mathematical knowledge. And of course currently we are made to feel that only subjects with practical applications, ie maths, science and technology, are worth expending the time and money on, and our country and the world is the poorer for such philistinism. It is curiosity, the act of studying and the eagerness to learn that are important, rather than the subject-matter.

Al-Nuwayri: The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition

December 18, 2016

51vj4rksg2l-_ac_us160_I have been curious about how people saw and tried to understand the world in the past, for a very long time. When I studied Latin in the sixth form, I came across Virgil’s recipe for bees in his fourth Georgic: to make bees, you stop up all the bodily orifices of a young calf and beat it to a pulp, and leave it in a tower with windows facing the four cardinal points: come back a week later and there will be bees! And it turned out it wasn’t that bonkers a theory as there’s a type of fly that looks very like a bee that lays eggs in carrion in that part of the world…

Writers have compiled compendia of knowledge over the centuries, until the time came at some point around the sixteenth century when it was no longer possible for one person to know everything that was known about the world. There’s a man from those times called Athanasius Kirchner who I’ve come across a few times. So there was Pliny’s Natural History, which is a fascinating collection of information that the Romans knew or speculated, and Isidore of Seville’s marvellous Etymologies, in which he tried to write down everything that was known in his time (seventh century) and for which he has become the patron saint of the internet.

And here is one of the Islamic world’s similar ventures. The original runs to 33 volumes, apparently, so this is a brief but carefully chosen selection, well translated and annotated, giving a feel of the original. Hazelnuts enlarge the brain, according to our fourteenth century author, but for me the most wonderful insight was that, if you are ever bitten by a panther, you must be very wary of mice, who will be attracted to you and come to urinate on you, and if one does, you will certainly die…

The sections on the natural world are probably the most fascinating; there are all sorts of bizarre recipes for enhancing sexual prowess, which make today’s spam e-mails seem positively dull. And the Islamic version of the Adam and Eve story is also an eye-opener, far more detailed and elaborate than the Genesis version. It’s not all from the Qur’an, but I’m unsure where the embellishments are from.

What come across to me quite clearly in all these authors and other that I’ve come across, is that there are things which they know for certain, and we can recognise these because they are correct and accurate to our understanding too, things that they are unsure about, and admit they are unsure about – here, our author concludes such sections with ‘God knows best’ which seems fair enough to me, and then things they clearly don’t know at all, have come across through hearsay or are just guessing. Today, in our scientific age, we are given the impression that everything is known; I think modern writers ought to be similarly modest and humble, but instead they usually present themselves as experts, founts of all knowledge and wisdom, or else we lend them that kind of authority unquestioningly. There are surely many things which we don’t know yet, and many things which we write of today as if we are certain of them, but which will come to be corrected in the future. I sometimes wonder what our generation’s equivalent of Virgil’s bees or Al-Nuwayri’s hazelnuts will turn out to be…

G R Evans: A Brief History of Heresy

August 20, 2015

9780631235262I found this a very useful little book, of the kind I’ve been looking for for ages; it pulled a lot of disparate details into place in my understanding and offered a clear taxonomy of heresies. I’m interested in the way various belief systems have developed and evolved, and the way changes to a system can either be accepted and authorised, or regarded as evils to be extirpated. Such approaches are visible in other religions such as Islam, and also in the various so-called communist creeds of the last century. The Orthodox Church, for example, regards itself as unchanged since apostolic times, and the Roman Catholic Church as the one that’s changed…

Initially, unity is important: how is consensus to be achieved and maintained as an organisation or church grows in size? Is the Pope to be head of the entire church, or should there be autocephalous patriarchs of various provinces? As I read further, it became clearer how it took a long time for certain aspects of dogma to be formalised and codified, often in response to new thinking and questioning; such beliefs we nowadays imagine have always been truths. Thus it was only from the eleventh century that the popes began to claim to be the heads of all Christianity, only from the nineteenth that they claimed to be infallible in matters of doctrine. Scripture was only regarded as the prime source of everything by the precursors of the sixteenth century reformers; it took several centuries to define the nature of Christ (!) and clarify what the Trinity was, and transubstantiation… to my mind, all huge changes and developments of the original events of two millennia ago, whatever they actually may have been.

Unity was definitively lost at the Reformation: although Rome may have regarded them as heretics, the reformers created new churches, and now there are thousands of them.

Once beliefs are codified and become part of the state apparatus, then there develops repression to enforce compliance, and we are in the territory of the various inquisitions, because so-called heresies (and power can decide anything is a heresy) are social challenges and attacks on authority. And because the victors write history, many heresies – the Cathar one in particular – lack any clear account of their belief system and ritual practices.

And then, at least in the West, as we like to think, eventually there develops a spirit of toleration, the idea that anyone shall be free to believe what they like or not, although in fact such tolerance only develops because it becomes impossible to enforce conformity any longer…

And I was also glad that this book sent me back to one of my heroes, Isidore of Seville, who wrote a whole chapter on heresies in his Etymologies in the seventh century. He’s the patron saint of the internet, by the way, and author of what’s generally believed to be the first encyclopaedia…

In pursuit of knowledge…

March 3, 2015

Whether one takes a religious line and believes that God gave us reason and intellect and therefore we should use them, or a more secular approach, believing that the human brain is one of the peaks and marvels of evolution, surely our curiosity and ability to pursue knowledge is one of the greatest things about our species; I have always felt this.

Humans have always sought to know and to understand their world; over millennia our knowledge and understanding has grown. Men have sought to write down the sum of what is known – Pliny‘s Natural History is a fascinating example of this, although for me the pioneer has always been Isidore of Seville, a seventh-century monk who wrote what has sometimes been called the world’s first encyclopaedia, his Etymologies, a series of twenty short volumes which attempt to classify, categorise and explain all things that were definitely known in his time. For his pioneering work, he has earned the title of patron saint of the internet, which I think is wonderful. The organisation and content of the Etymologies is at times weird and/ or bizarre, but it’s the effort and determination, and the understanding that it needed to be done, which earns the respect.

Similarly, travellers and explorers, about whom I often write, have dedicated themselves, through the centuries, to finding out about the furthest corners of our world, often at extreme risk and peril; the more I read, the more I am astonished by how much was known and discovered long ago, in many different lands. But then, knowledge can be lost, and I do feel that there is a Western bias in the way that discovery is presented to us nowadays, in that a thing or place in unnown until someone from the west has uncovered it and written about it.

When I was 14, men landed on the moon for the first time and walked about on it; I got myself up at three in the morning to watch the event live on grainy black and white television, and it is still, all those years later, the most marvellous thing that has happened in my lifetime, and it remains etched clearly on my memory. Yes, they knew where they were going, how far it was, and how long it would take, and the risks involved; they did it, and it’s the furthest humanity has physically got in its exploration of the universe. I doubt that I will still be here when men walk on Mars, but I do believe that money, time and effort spent on getting there is worthwhile, compared with many other things on which we waste our time and resources.

When Wikipedia first began, the idea seemed weird: an encyclopaedia anyone could contribute to, and yet as it has evolved and developed it has become a veritable goldmine of information (yes, I know not all of it is reliable, but its reach stretches way beyond anything else) and it lives on in the spirit of Isidore, as a recognition of our search for knowledge.

Writing from Arab lands

July 14, 2014

Continuing the posts exploring my wider reading, and my opinion that other countries and languages offer sometimes better reading than English…

I’ve become increasingly fascinated by literature and other writing from the Middle East over the years. Partly this is from a wish to understand some of the conflicts going on in various parts of the world, but also from a longer historical perspective, as I’m aware that Arabs lands in the Middle Ages were not only the safeguarding repositories of much of humankind’s knowledge, but also the places where much new research and discovery was happening, while our part of the world languished in the so-called ‘Dark Ages’. I know that this is a bit of an over-simplification, but for me it’s also a counter to the Western-centrism which ignores so much of the rest of the world and what it has achieved.

Travels by Arab writers are fascinating: Ibn Battutah‘s voyages in the fourteenth century dwarf those of Marco Polo; Ibn al-Mujawil wrote in the thirteenth century and al-Masudi even earlier. I have a translation of Ibn Jubayr which is still on the to-read pile. And then there is Leo Africanus, and his Description of Africa, as well as the wonderful re-imagination of his life and travels by Amin Maalouf. Ibn Khaldun as a historian and compiler of knowledge is as interesting as Isidore of Seville.

My reading of fiction is limited by what is available in translation, and much more is accessible in French (currently) than in English. I have really enjoyed the novels and essays of the Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf: his perspective is a very helpful one in that his country is a society where Christians and Muslims have long co-existed (not always peacefully). The length essays Les Identités Meurtrières, and Le Déreglement du Monde are thoughtful and insightful takes on current conflicts in the world. His novel about the celebrated poet and astronomer Omar Khayyam, Samarkand, is available in English, as is Baldassare’s Travels; his novel about Leo Africanus and many others, which I recommend highly, are not, to the best of my knowledge.

I was quite stunned by Naguib MahfouzCairo Trilogy when I first came across it, and have read it twice, now: it’s a panorama of life in Cairo in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries centred around a single extended family; it’s a soap-opera of daily life, a fascinating and detailed insight into a totally different society, its customs, habits and morals, and the background is the increasingly turbulent history of the times; as a Westerner I learned a lot as well as enjoyed the novels; obviously life in Egypt is far more complex than a novel can reveal, but I loved being allowed these glimpses. It is sobering and necessary to see how other people can and do think, feel, react, exist in ways that are so different from our own: we may accept the difference, we may question it, but how can we begin to do anything if we have no knowledge?

This brings me on to the realisations that the Arab lands, via the Silk Route, were the way in which we originally came to know the Far East, the lands of China and India… that the things which connect us to other peoples are, or ought to be, far stronger than those which separate us, and cause conflict. I’m no philosopher and have no wish to be a politician, but I do strongly believe that we should be celebrating this diversity.

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