John Man is good at a certain kind of popular history book, as I’ve noted before. There are often elements of travelogue, and it’s usually a very easy read, with quite short chapters and not too many long quotations from sources or anything like that. It’s not the most rigorous scholarship in the world, but it’s a good way to get a handle on a subject and get an initial idea of whether you’re interested in reading more. Sometimes there are interesting titbits about newer scholarship that might be a bit more controversial — you catch the drift.
Alpha Beta, then, is Man’s take on the alphabet. Other people have mentioned expecting that he’d just discuss each letter in turn and where we picked it up from, but Man is somewhat more ambitious: he’s after the origin of the Roman alphabet as we know it, and more generally the origin of writing as a form of expression. He has some very interesting points, including about Korea’s hyper-rational alphabet that is designed to be ideal for writing down the language. (Though I do wonder if that will stick after a few centuries of use and language change.)
He has a whole bit on the influence of the alphabet on monotheism that made surprisingly little impact on me and I only remembered when checking over the Amazon reviews to refresh my mind to write this — although actually, I think what he wrote was more the other way round, that monotheism had an impact on the emergence of the alphabet, because he wrote about how useful it can be for an emerging social group to adopt an alphabet. The Mongols (a pet topic of his, clearly, since he’s written books on Genghis and Kublai Khan, etc) were also an example in that context.
Overall, it’s an interesting if not exactly exhaustive read.
Genghis Khan: Life, Death and Resurrection, John Man
John Man writes good, light, easy to read pop history. I have no illusions that I’m reading about the latest cutting edge discoveries, or that I’m getting a deep critical look at all the possible sources… but a story is woven together that illuminates a bit of history, with a touch of the travelogue as well. I know that it annoys other readers that Man also writes about his experiences while writing a book — where he went for research, the almost-calamities experienced, etc, etc. Still, for a bit of light reading I don’t mind, and it’s certainly easier to digest than something more academic.
Genghis Khan himself is a fascinating subject: the name is so evocative, yet really all it conjured up for me was tent villages and conquest. I didn’t really have a good idea of the Mongol peoples and their context, except dimly refracted through fiction. And well, okay, John Man gives us little snippets of “faction” (as is his wont), but it is based on research and an understanding of what was likely.
So yeah, enjoyable and accessible. I wouldn’t use it as a source for something that needs scrupulous accuracy, but if you’re curious, it should be a good read.
I’ve been joking that my wife should be worried I picked this up, but really I was here to understand how poisons work. Although the ‘social history’ part of the title is definitely true, describing famous historical poisoning cases, it also includes little profiles on each poison which explain how it has the effects it has in chemical terms. I already knew some of the most notorious ones (partially because of the excellent book on Agatha Christie’s use of poisons, A is for Arsenic), but there were others I didn’t know.
Overall, it’s a bit shallow, focusing on some of the most sensational cases of poisoning and basically whipping around the types of poison that’re out there and how they’ve been used for suicide, assassination, etc. Still, it had its interesting points, and if you’re interested in true crime there’s a couple of cases I knew nothing about.
Not something to rush out and get, in my opinion, and while spouses should maybe be worried it’d put ideas into someone’s head, there’s no practical information about obtaining poisons or anything dangerous like that! It really is much more about the history, with explanations of how poisons actually do their damage.
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries, John H. Taylor, Daniel Antoine
Ancient Lives, New Discoveries is a fascinating volume which peers beneath the wrappings of eight mummies in the British Museum’s collection, using state of the art CT scanning and reconstruction to do so completely non-destructively. The mummies are from different areas of Egypt, and different eras as well, from mummies preserved naturally through to mummies prepared using every trick of the embalmers’ trade. There are amazing images in this book, with various different views of each mummy, and additional notes explaining significant features (like poles used to stabilise detached heads, an odd metal(?) ring somewhere in the oldest mummy’s abdomen, etc. There’s also some background information of a fairly basic sort, if you already know a fair bit about Egypt — if you don’t, this volume gets you up to speed enough to understand the mummies, in relatively few pages.
One quibble I had was the constant insistence that male bodies in sarcophagi with female names were definitely put there by accident (either in antiquity or now). I’ll admit I don’t know anything about gender in Ancient Egypt, but gender has always been fluid and expressed in different ways in different societies. Probably some of the bodies are in the wrong sarcophagi, owing to the way their tombs were pillaged and the way collections were swapped about with little attention paid to provenance. But… just maybe some of the ambiguities might be best resolved by thinking about whether we’re looking at gender the same way. Clearly the wrapping and presentation of mummies reflected social roles as much as anything else, as demonstrated by the young girl identified as a temple singer, mummified and presented as a desirable young woman — the intent does not seem to have been to reflect a person accurately, at any rate. Who says they weren’t wrapped and presented in a way meant to represent who they were in life, rather than the bare details biology gives us?
I know I’m not an expert in that field, but I can’t help but think that some acknowledgement of that as a possibility would have fit in well. Instead, it felt as if everything was explained away as a mistake on someone else’s part, rather than a potential misunderstanding on the part of those investigating the mummies now.
Still a fascinating book, though; perfect for someone fascinated by mummies.
This book is seriously outdated, but that’s almost irrelevant since what I really wanted was a book with a general, accessible history of archaeology to just sink into. Ceram provides: he covers various great civilisations (Greeks, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, South Americans) and discusses some of the early work done in digging up and restoring their monuments. He’s often admiring of the adventurers who found them, while noting that at times they did more harm than good (something we feel even more strongly now) — there’s a great sense of adventure about some of the people and events he describes, though he does so in a scholarly tone that others might find dry. I enjoyed the range of choices here — e.g. it doesn’t just go for Petrie, Carter, Champollion, Schliemann… but digs into some names I knew less well.
There’s tons more to learn about all the sites and civilisations Ceram discusses, and much of the information here has been updated. For example, we don’t think in terms of slaves building the pyramids anymore. Still, there’s a great deal here to whet the appetite: a glimpse of the wonderful things as seen by those who were very close to their early discovery, but synthesised into a greater narrative about the progress of archaeology.
Not for everyone, but perfect for the mood I was in at the time. I think my favourite bit was the section on Egypt: like it or not, that was my first archaeological love. That said, I want to do a ton more reading about the archaeology of the Americas, which this book inspired me to pick up.
Possibly I shouldn’t have been surprised by how much of the history of papermaking and paper usage is focused on China and the surrounding countries, but I was still somehow surprised — and I definitely hadn’t known about the key role Buddhist sutras players in popularising paper there. I did enjoy that the book didn’t just focus in narrowly on paper-making, but discussed its usage, the people who used it, and explained the contexts. It’s one of those books that might seem to be a microhistory, but in the end tells you a lot about various different things.
Of course, in later chapters it discusses the Reformation and the rise of literacy in the population, and the invention of the novel. But a lot of it isn’t about the West, which is… actually, probably a good thing for a complacent Westerner like me to run into. Paper was already established, understood and used fully well before we started printing Bibles and novels on it. It’s obvious, when you say it like that.
I found Munro’s style pretty compelling and definitely clear, and I enjoyed the fact that he didn’t hurry to the more familiar parts of paper’s history.
A History of Ancient Egypt: From the Great Pyramid to the Fall of the Middle Kingdom, John Romer
Oh, yay, I have now discovered there’s going to be a third volume of these. Despite some reservations when I read the first volume, I find Romer’s writing pretty clear and engaging — though honestly, for me it would be difficult for someone discussing tombs and chapels and the statuary and pomp of the Egyptian courts to actually become boring. From the reading around I’ve done, Romer is accurate and thoughtful, working with the knowledge we actually have of the Middle Kingdom to discover as much as he can, without getting carried away and deciding everything is ritual, mysticism and slavery, as people are prone to do when considering Ancient Egypt.
The book has an extensive bibliography and notes, so it’s easy to look things up for more information. Personally, for all that I love the lavish description of tombs and the decoration of temples — and especially the importance of hieroglyphs — this book does feel very long (it kind of is very long, but it feels longer than it looks, if that makes sense). So it might not be for you if you’re more interested in a quick overview: it’s definitely detailed. I find it fascinating, though, even though a lot of the description washed right over me and won’t be socked away into long-term memory. It’s interesting just to read.
I love reading books on archaeology. A lot of the information doesn’t sink in — the names and dates and precise contents of tombs — but the interpretations that come out of it do, and I have a great time reliving my childhood dreams of being an archaeologist. (Blame Time Team.) In the case of this book, it’s mostly based on inscriptions and ruins actually found standing, rather than excavations, and I ended up tiring of the succession of names and vague facts, and of being told over and over again what a linga is (it’s a giant stone penis). There’s definitely magic in the ruins of Angkor Wat, and I did enjoy some of the understanding I gleaned of how that society worked… but it got pretty repetitive, just lists and lists of who was related to whom, the gods they venerated and the piles of treasure and groups of workers they supplied for temples.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s important stuff to know in the interpretation of the site, but it’s a little… bloodless. It all seemed to be summed up rather neatly in the final 20-page chapter, which was the bit where most of the analysis came in.
The cover promises the “wild and wonderful” tale of the founding of the London Zoo, but it isn’t really very wild, though you might decide it’s still wonderful in its way. It certainly was a heck of a task, and the fact that the London Zoo still exists is amazing considering some of the difficulties they had. The style is rather fictionalised — mentioning exactly what Charman imagines the protagonists of the story think and feel — and it doesn’t always stick very closely to the founding of the zoo itself. For example, there’s a whole chapter on Darwin, at least as long as the others, and yet of all of them he has almost nothing to do with the actual business of the zoo.
It’s not all about the zoo, then, but the story it tells is an interesting one, and I did enjoy the stories of men that might have been left out of the story in another time — the first vet, the keepers, etc. The people who did the day to day work on the ground, not just the people who designed the buildings or paid for things.
A little slow, really; it was a bit too fictional to give me the sort of details I want in my non-fiction, but too dry for my tastes as a work of fiction.
This is a fairly in-depth examination of the Wall and the archaeology done around it to try and understand what it was used for and at what times. As such, it’s a lot of information that most people wouldn’t expect to hold in their heads after, unless they’re deeply interested in the topic. Which is pretty much exactly why I read this, back during my exam period. I really love reading books like this that sift through the archaeology, present possible conclusions and discuss what is most likely. I don’t expect to remember this or that about the forts — no one expects me to remember it — but all the same I learned about the Romans and the British of the period, and got to connect some dots in what I know.
It’s perhaps not the most scintillating reading if you’re not pretty engaged and interested in the topic, but it’s interesting stuff and they make a good case for their ideas.