Monday, January 4, 2010

Book #1 of 2010

Author: Robert Silverberg
Year Published: 1966
Category: Non-fiction. Archaeology/biography.

And so it begins. This is my first book finished in 2010, and it's a delightful way to start the year. Henry Rawlinson's life is so intrinsically fascinating and full of achievement that Silverberg doesn't need to do much to make the narrative gripping. There are countless scrapes with death, adventures in foreign lands and, above all, the intellectually thrilling details of the decoding of cuneiform Class I and Class III writing.

This biography provides a clear sense of the enormous difficulties involved in the deciphering of the maddeningly complex writing, and how the enterprise, perhaps inevitably, became somewhat of a collective effort between Rawlinson, Edward Hincks and Jules Oppert. There's some good bits on politics (specially in Rawlinson's latter years) as well as history of the Middle East, though perhaps fewer purely historical expository sections than in Silverberg's biography of Austen Henry Layard (The Man Who Found Nineveh). Layard and Rawlinson became friends, so these books are nicely complementary, telling stories that emphasize archaeological and linguistic challenges respectively.

Rawlinson was knighted in 1855. The passage describing this, on. p. 145, made me curious to know more (italics are mine):

"Soon after his impending retirement was announced, Rawlinson was offered the honor of knighthood. For reasons that are hard to understand, he declined the title at first, but accepted it when it was offered again seven months later. In February, 1856, he became Sir Henry Rawlinson."

So why did he initially decline it? It seems completely out of character given all that has come before. There's a mystery here, one perhaps solved by subsequent biographies of Rawlinson. Nevertheless, I'm still curious...

Side note: Though much of Silverberg's non-fiction was originally intended for youngsters when it was published, it doesn't seem flimsy at all by today's grown-up reading standards, even half a century down the line.
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