Review by Booklist Review
"Ideas don't change the world by themselves; they must be seized by individuals who understand them according to their own needs and who use them for their own ends." From cave paintings to Greek tragedies and the arts in Egypt, China, Europe, and South America right up to the present day, all considered from diverse perspectives, Harvard professor Puchner chronicles the ways we have discovered, rediscovered, destroyed, fabricated, manipulated, syncretized, erased, and preserved the wisdom and cultures of those who have come before us. Puchner gives readers a broad understanding of these realms by delving deeply into symbolic moments and stories. In the exploration of people and places endeavoring to give form and expression to their own summae, or compilation of all existing knowledge, Puchner creates a perfectly balanced and incisively abridged version of the story of human culture. Ultimately, this is an examination of the making and transport of ideas, which is always an interaction between old and new. Each chapter builds a new layer, adding to the depth and complexity, while Puchner also provides a global who's who of cultural diffusion.
From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review
The circuitous paths by which art, literature, customs, and ideology diffuse through and transform the world are traced in this exhilarating treatise. Harvard English professor Puchner (The Drama of Ideas) spotlights works that crystallize episodes of cultural cross-pollination, including the famous bust, discovered in 1912, of ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, leader of a monotheistic religious movement that influenced early Judaism; a medieval Japanese noblewoman's diary, which reveals the deep imprint of Chinese poetry and manners on Japanese society; enigmatic Aztec picture-writing books and contemporary Albrech Dürer prints, which exemplify the incipient gulf between books as objets d'art and as commodities; a portrait of Haitian statesman Jean-Baptiste Belley and its link to Parisian salons; and the resonances between British colonialism and post-independence Nigerian literature apparent in Wole Soyinka's play Death and the King's Horseman. Along the way, Puchner analyzes the ingenious mechanisms by which culture is stored, transformed, and spread. (By carving his Buddhist ethical precepts onto giant stone monoliths, the ancient Indian philosopher-king Ashoka cannily assured that they would not just persuade his subjects but tempt scholars thousands of years later into deciphering and discussing them.) Elegantly written and full of erudite lore, this vibrant history illuminates the inveterate human yearning for expression. Photos. (Feb.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review
A wide-ranging examination of cultural convergences throughout human history. Puchner, a Harvard literature professor and editor of The Norton Anthology of World Literature, takes a capacious view of cultural objects and practices, from cave drawings to TikTok, that form our shared human inheritance. His project, he writes, was inspired by a need to define for himself the meaning of his own scholarly field, the humanities, which he understands as an engagement with the cultural past "for the purpose of redefining the present." In each of 15 chapters, Puchner pleasingly investigates ways that cultures have redefined themselves, often through cross-fertilization. When ancient Greece adopted an alphabet from Egyptians, a largely oral tradition faded in favor of writing. However, libraries proved to be a vulnerable form of cultural storage. Plato, who gave up a career as a playwright to follow Socrates, understood the power of dialogue to teach, though he rejected invented dialogue to create the simulated reality of theater--a critique revived in dystopian tales such as the 1999 film The Matrix. The Romans proved adept at grafting Greek culture onto their own. Many centuries after Mount Vesuvius erupted, the discovery of the sculpture of a South Asian goddess was proof of cultural influences from India as well. Puchner underscores the enriching potential of cultural importation. For example, when a seventh-century Chinese pilgrim traveled to India, he returned with religious texts that he went on to translate, leading to the flourishing of Buddhism in China just as it was diminishing in India. The invention of museums as well as exploration, colonization, and global trade all have inspired artists' imaginations. German artist Albrecht Dürer was astonished by the gold objects he saw displayed in Brussels, gifts from Moctezuma to Spanish explorers, meant to warn them of the Aztec's power and resources. Instead, they incited greed and destruction. Looking at recent phenomena such as K-pop, Puchner is sanguine. "The arc of cultural history," he concludes optimistically, "bends toward circulation and mixture." A thoughtful, generous vision of human creativity across centuries of culture. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.
Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.