On deteriorating masterpieces, disintegrating temples, declining Latin, and other markers of the race to save history from humanity.
“Our society is in the midst of a fundamental rupture with the past,” writes New Yorker contributor Stille (Excellent Cadavers, 1995, etc.). This break, he adds, isn’t a result just of the historical amnesia born of a television age but is also a result of disappearing antiquities themselves: our knowledge of the past, of earlier peoples, and even of nature increases exponentially while the objects of study themselves are disappearing, whether to the tomb, the robber’s shovel, or Taliban cannons. Stille’s 11 pieces here, most previously published in the New Yorker, address this loss while looking at varied attempts by individuals (and by a few organizations) to reverse it. The author writes, for example, about American primatologist Patricia Wright, who, “great at politicking,” all but single-handedly created Madagascar’s Ranomafana National Park, a preserve for lemurs and other endangered species; about University of Chicago scholar Mark Lehner, who is laboring against all odds to prevent further destruction of Egypt’s Giza pyramid complex; and, most entertaining of all, about the American expatriate priest Reginald Foster, who has launched a highly influential if idiosyncratic movement to restore Latin to the status of a living language. Individually, the pieces are pleasures, bearing all the hallmarks of New Yorker–style comprehensive yet accessible approach to the weightiest of matters. But they’re not equally successful at adding up to a sustained argument, a weakness revealed clearly in the ill-advised concluding chapter, which attempts to tie it all together with a string of truisms about the deleterious effects of modern habits on things and ways of the past.
Even so, Stille is an exemplary reporter, and he offers here just the thing to add to a history buff’s stack of bedside reading.