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RIVER OF INK by Thomas Christensen


Literature, History, Art

by Thomas Christensen

Pub Date: Dec. 16th, 2014
ISBN: 978-1619024267
Publisher: Counterpoint

Assorted essays about people, places and ideas.

Editor, publisher and blogger Christensen (1616: The World in Motion, 2012, etc.) intends each essay to make “sense of a little corner of things, each one starting from a different thread of the fabric of everything.” That amorphous goal fails to provide coherence for the collection, which contains various writings: histories, author profiles, book reviews, and political and cultural commentary. Christensen organizes the essays by continent. The pieces on West Asia are linked by the theme of cultural repression: the Taliban’s destruction of artworks, for example, and the title essay, which refers to the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258, when the contents of the Grand Library were dumped into the Tigris. “For six months,” the author writes, “…the waters of the Tigris flowed black from the ink of the books.” Other geographical sections, though, contain essays that are only tenuously connected to place. “Australia, Southeast Asia,” for example, contains two essays: a profile of the Australian writer Ethel Richardson, who wrote under the pseudonym Henry Handel Richardson, and a brief homage to Thai artist Montien Boonma, whose installation House of Hope the author admires. In the section on Europe, Christensen writes about the Spanish poet José Ángel Valente, writers Lewis Carroll and Horace Walpole, Céline’s love of dance, and Johannes Kepler. The author writes that since he is not a scholar, readers should not expect essays to support an argument, but some pieces (on Chinese history, for one) read like Wikipedia entries and beg for a theme. Nevertheless, although the collection is diffuse, Christensen’s lively curiosity informs several quirky and engrossing essays: “Journeys of the Iron Man” documents how a mid-19th-century iron statue commissioned by an African king came to be “branded a masterpiece of world art,” and “Sadakichi and America” brings to light the life and multiple identities of a slippery character well-known in avant-garde circles.

An uneven collection enlivened by some bright spots.