Saturday, January 9, 2010

Book #2 of 2010

Author: Robert Silverberg
Year Published: 1962
Category: Non-fiction. Archaeology/history/biography.

Six chapters; six renowned archaeological discoveries (Pompeii, Troy, Knossos, Babylon, Chichen Itza, Angkor); and, connected to them, we get dozens of brief biographical sketches of their main discoverers and their forerunners/inspirations, as well as plenty of straight history on the Empires that fashioned these marvels.

Despite its age, and all that we have learned since, this is an inspired survey of the empires in question. There is a nice symmetry in starting with Pompeii and ending with Angkor, since both of these chapters tend to focus more on the daily lives of the denizens in question than their convoluted histories. The chapters on Troy and Crete are assured and read smoothly. The chapter on Babylon feels overcrowded -- I think Silverberg is trying to get too much in here, and it's not as well organized as it could be, specially as compared with later treatments of this same material in his full-length biographies. The chapter on the Mayas is solid, but perhaps more severely outdated than some of the others.

Once again, the fascinating nature of the subject matter makes this as an easy read. The prose isn't quite as well-crafted in Silverberg's latter non-fiction books; there are more repetitions of points already made (perhaps in an effort to make the very disparate chapters seem cohesive), more choppiness resulting from the skips forward and jumps back. Of course, trademark wry Silverberg observations pepper the text, as in the following, when discussing the enslavement of half a million Mayas by the Spanish:

"The Spanish were ruthlessly thorough, as their priests recorded in their accounts of the period. Luckily, they did take the trouble to write reports on the civilization they were destroying." (p. 147)

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