I like conventional history books as much as the next person, providing that that person enjoys reading conventional history books, sometimes though a trip down a different route is much needed and wholly appreciated..
In this 672 page beast of a book, wordy historian Simon Schama attempts to show the effects that various landscapes have had on different civilizations and how, in turn, we have affected the landscape. The environmental aspects he chooses for this are forests, mountains and rivers.
Schama draws his evidence from many varied subjects, encompassing literature, art history, geography, geology, folk-lore, philosophy, etc ,ensuring a comprehensive and compelling slant for his arguments.
A case study like this was always going to be my thing – defining culture through people more than man-made borders ever could – how we continually shape and are shaped by the land, our national character defined by what is around us, a deep and ancient connection with our environment.
if, like me, you are also a lover of what I term the ‘Jigsaw of History’ and enjoy looking at how this fascinating tapestry of all things connects, then the huge variety of references will please you, everything from Ancient Egypt, Henry David Thoreau, Rome, Robin Hood and Mount Rushmore, these are just a couple I noted whilst flicking through the pages and there are so many more new and forgotten to events and people to (re)discover. Two of personal favourites was John Taylor the water poet and a master of gothic solitude paintings, Caspar David Friedrich.
As you have probably gleaned from the what has come before there is a lot of depth to this book, there is also a lot of artwork to break up the text, lots of colour photographs as well as the black and white etchings of olden days which evoke a plethora of emotions. The violent clash of colour, imagination and vibrancy coalesces to become a celebration of all the good things that humanity create, whilst giving a wary nod to how wars have come to define our way of thinking.
The aspects it delves into are more than worthy of your attention. There are so many great works mentioned in here that there will be something new for everybody, the only negative I could derive from the whole book was that such a wide range of sources sometimes make the book feel a bit disjointed and sometimes a seemingly small digression leads into a full-blown look at something else. Schama’s enthusiasm for history though makes up for this, his delight in writing really shows through and guarantees a reading list as long as your arm. Once you finish this book, it’ll be one of the more referenced books in your history collection, .
This is a book that demands exploration and is a timely reminder of how globalisation has brought national character into the spotlight and how it has subsequently diluted or destroyed it. It’s also a stark reminder of how we are damaging the land that actually defines us in the dubiously named quest for progress.. This is a heavy book, in both the literal and metaphorical sense of the word but its quality is very high and the photos are sublime in parts. This is not one you will want to rush through but savour before going to read all those classic works that all cultures used to prodigiously produce.