Art historian, philosopher, raconteur, academic, or proselyte? Simon Schama’s great tome carries elements of all these. One reviewer, quoted on the cover, adds ‘self-indulgent and perverse’, and I’ve no argument with those.
There are undoubted instances of the self-congratulatory, ‘I know a lot more than you’, and the academic show-off in this extraordinarily dense piece of erudition and scholarship.
I suppose I should declare how I came to read this book, which isn’t a volume I’d have normally acquired. Resident in the UK, I was seeking a translation of the Qur’an, for research purposes, and could find nothing suitable. Eventually, I discovered one on the Amazon USA site, so ordered it. The package arrived with a brick of a book (priced at £30.00) and about five times the physical size of the paperback I’d ordered. It was Simon Schama’s book. I explained, via email, what had happened. The generous folk over the pond suggested I keep the book they’d posted in error and then sent me the book I’d ordered.
There’s some irony that an order for a book on Islam should produce a volume written from a distinctively Jewish point of view, but that’s no matter to an agnostic, of course.
The anecdotal passages, accounts of family history, I found entertaining and engaging. But much of the scholarly text, replete with references to historical figures I frequently failed to recognise, was too unfamiliar to permit a sympathetic read. There were lengthy passages that would no doubt delight the specialist, but which bored me to sleep.
Too much information can be as off-putting as too little, and I was left with the impression of an author more concerned to demonstrate his immense range and depth of knowledge than to provide the casual reader with a means of accessing it.
The book deals largely with the way in which landscape informs our imaginations and therefore influences the creation of works of art. How locations can impact on both events and the artist’s response to them. It’s also a history lesson deeply influenced by the Hebrew view of the world.
A significantly weighty tome, both physically (I read part of it while in hospital and found my arms soon wearied from holding it up) and in terms of content, it was a work I could read only in portions. I learnt much but was also frequently left in the dark about those aspects of which I had no former knowledge.
Students of art history and Jewish society will find a great deal in these pages. For the general reader there’s a mix of the incomprehensible with informed education.
So, a work I enjoyed in part and endured in others. Frustrating and rewarding in turn.
[Any review is a personal opinion. No reviewer can represent the view of anyone else. The best we can manage is an honest reaction to any given book.]
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