Thursday, December 1, 2011

Day 1 of Our 24 Days of Books

Welcome to Day 1 in this year's 24 Days of Books. If you're new to the blog, it's a pretty straightforward concept: each day in December through Christmas Eve we feature a book or group of books that we think would make particularly wonderful gifts this holiday season.

It's always a challenge to winnow down to the few that we talk about, because there are SO MANY books that would make great gifts. And, frankly, we enjoy nothing more than having you all come in and talk to us about all the specific giftees in your lives so we can help you select the perfect gift for each person on your list. But this is a start, right? Other good sources for gift ideas can be found on our website in the staff picks, the store bestsellers (under "what's new?"), the Holiday Book Guide, Indie Bestsellers, and the IndieNext List -- all of which can be reached via our home page.

A couple of caveats before we get started: We tend to focus on recently released books, because we figure we've probably already talked about older books (and by older we mean they came out before the Fall) in previous blog posts or Facebook posts or somewhere else. Also, because we mostly talk about newly published books they tend to be hardbound books. But here's a tip: if you're more interested in paperback books, look for the "Blog Archive" on the right-hand side of the blog, and click on December 2010 and 2009 for previous years' 24 Days of Books, since many of those books will now be available in paperback.

So let's get started....a little drum roll would be nice.....Day 1 in this year's 24 Days of Books features A History of the World in 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor and published by Viking/Penguin. This fascinating book takes a dramatically original approach to the telling of history, using objects that previous civilizations have left behind, often accidentally, as a prism through which to explore the lives of the men and women of history. The author not only describes these 100 objects, but also shows us their significance in history and puts them in the context of a larger history.

Neil MacGregor has been the director of the British Museum since 2002. Previously he was the director of the National Gallery in London. The book originated as a partnership between the BBC and the British Museum, leading to a BBC radio series narrated by MacGregor. As he says in the book's preface, "Telling history through things is what museums are for." "All museums rest on the hope -- the belief -- that the study of things can lead to a truer understanding of the world."

The rules for this particular collection of "things" were set by the BBC: "Colleagues from the Museum and the BBC would choose from the collection of the British Museum 100 objects that had to range in date from the beginning of human history around two million years ago and come right up to the present day. The objects had to cover the whole world, as far as possible equally. They would try to address as many aspects of human experience as proved practicable, and to tell us about whole societies, not just the rich and powerful within them. The objects would therefore necessarily include the humble things of everyday life as well as great works of art." The point of the project was to help people make sense of the museum’s vast holdings by taking a single object and putting it into a larger context, one that told a story that everybody could relate to.

Of course there is an inherent limit in this approach, as it is limited to the things that survive: "It is particularly harsh on cultures whose artefacts are made mostly of organic materials, and especially so where climate will cause such things to decay: for most of the tropical world, very little survives from the distant past."

The oldest artifact in the book is a stone chopping tool found by Louis Leakey in the Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania and dating from somewhere around two million years ago -- the beginning of the human toolbox. "Those extra chips on the edge of the chopping tool tell us that right from the beginning, we -- unlike other animals -- have felt the urge to make things more sophisticated than they need to be. Objects carry powerful messages about their makers, and the chopping tool is the beginning of a relationship between humans and the things they create which is both a love affair and a dependency."

From 5000 BC we have the Jomon Pot, found in Japan: "It was these Jomon people living in what is now northern Japan who created the world's first pots." The Jomon Pot looks much like the baskets that people had relied on previously, but the new sturdy clay containers brought great improvements: they kept freshness in and mice out, they were leak-proof and heat-resistant: "This is an important point -- pots change your diet. New foods become edible only once they can be boiled. Heating shellfish in liquid forces the shells to open, making it easier to get at the contents, but also, no less importantly, it sorts out which are good and which are bad -- the bad ones stay closed."

From about 3000 BC the book brings us a clay writing tablet found in southern Iraq -- a tablet "almost exactly the same size and shape as the mouse that controls your computer." Unlike bamboo and paper, which are easily destroyed, sun-baked clay will survive in dry ground for thousands of years. This particular tablet seems to be a bureaucratic record of beer issued as payment to workers.

Another object in the book is a stone mask made by the Olmecs, who ruled in what is now Mexico from about 1400 BC to about 400 BC. The Olmecs "were a highly sophisticated people, who built the first cities in Central America, mapped the heavens, developed the first writing and probably evolved the first calendar there."

A granite sphinx found in northern Sudan, The Rosetta Stone, a Korean roof tile, a stone statue from Easter Island, a shadow puppet of Bima, a Hawaiian feather helmet, a buckskin map from midwestern America, a Sudanese slit drum, a chronometer carried on the HMS Beagle, a penny from England with "votes for women" hammered by hand on its face, and ending with a solar-powered lamp and charger made in China in 2010 -- this book of objects tells you a history of the world that you have never seen before. And it is fascinating. This is the kind of book you can pick up over and over again, reading straight through or dipping in and out and jumping around in time. A terrific gift. But be sure to pick up one for yourself!

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