CLEOPATRA'S NOSE: Essays on the Unexpected by Daniel J. Boorstin

CLEOPATRA'S NOSE: Essays on the Unexpected

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From historian and former Librarian of Congress Boorstin (The Creators, 1992, etc.), 17 sparkling and erudite essays that ""explore some of the surprising novelties and unexpected continuities in our recent past."" Boorstin is a magnificent anachronism: He still believes in the essential goodness of the American experiment, and as an amateur rather than professional historian, he prefers straightforward narratives on grand themes rather than narrowly focused, footnote-laden quarrels with musty academics. These pieces, all published since 1986 as either keynote addresses or introductions to other writers' books, amply display his gift for arresting anecdotes and his ability to connect different events in compelling new ways. Several of his interests come to the fore here. First is his fascination with discovery and the creative process. He discusses the partnership between ""the search to know"" (discovery) and ""the passion to innovate"" (invention) and our current ""Age of Negative Discovery"" (case in point: James Cook, whose 18th-century Pacific explorations showed that the ""Great Southern Continent"" did not exist). While dazzled by advances in science and technology, Boorstin remains aware of their ephemeral nature, noting that all discovery ultimately reveals new realms of human ignorance. On the positive side, technology has given rise to revered American institutions; mass printing, for instance, paved the way for greater public acceptance of the Constitution. As a social analyst, Boorstin examines the role of conscience in Western literature and in America's current contentious politics. Alexis de Tocqueville and the Marquis de Custine, who wrote respectively of 1830s America and Russia, are his examples of social commentators who use history as a ""cautionary science"" and an avenue into a nation's soul. Finally, he offers a personal tribute to his lawyer father and ""the amateur spirit"" in the arts. Like the curious amateurs he celebrates, Boorstin offers ""a wonderful vagrancy into the unexpected.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1994
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Random