The Austin Chronicle

Book Review

Reviewed by Tim Warden, August 8, 2008, Books

Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind

by Colin Renfrew
Modern Library, 240 pp., $23

Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet

by Ian F. McNeely and Lisa Wolverton
W.W. Norton, 224 pp., $25.95

Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages

by Ammon Shea
Perigree Trade, 240 pp., $21.95

It's a remarkable thing, how an organism whose primary occupations were picking berries and making babies could transform into a creature that texts while driving, and three new books endeavor to chart that evolution. Prehistory: The Making of the Human Mind investigates "the various changes that have taken place in the human condition," while Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet frames man's ascent by examining the history of institutions of knowledge, and Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages packages itself in that increasingly inescapable format, the "year of living [insert outrageous way to live for a year here]" stunt.

Renfrew's Prehistory begins with an exhaustive (and often exhausting) history of archaeological discoveries and the evolving explanations of what they reveal about the lives of humans before recorded history. This survey proceeds chronologically from the first inklings (in the Western world) that humans may have lived on Earth earlier than 4004BCE – the age of the Earth according to a 17th century biblical scholar's analysis of the "begat" part of Genesis. Renfrew makes a point of explaining what different interpreters believed about the origins of man, and perhaps in an effort to thwart those who would return us to the "begat" methodology, he provides often necessarily tedious explanations of how these conclusions were reached. For instance, he details the significance of mitochondrial DNA in the discovery that Homo sapiens show essentially no genetic difference between a child born today and one born 60,000 years ago, the time of the initial out-of-Africa dispersal. In the second part of Prehistory, Renfrew asks why then, if genetic change was not involved, did it take so long – until 10,000 years ago – for the earliest agricultural revolution. He argues that there was so little engagement with the material world in humanity's first 50,000 years and so much in the last 5,000 because of the very significant role "new symbols, new concepts, and new beliefs" had upon the precise nature of that engagement. In particular, man's experience with ever-increasing levels of abstract, symbolic thinking enabled concepts like "property," "money," and "alphabet" to utterly transform human societies.

Prehistory, which is a dense academic work (no bucket of yuks), closes with a discussion of the impact of writing and, in doing so, segues seamlessly into Reinventing Knowledge: From Alexandria to the Internet. While Prehistory emphasizes the impact of memes on humans' conceptual and material existence, Reinventing Knowledge, which will be released Aug. 18, concerns itself with the extraordinary power of ideas that reorganize the ways people pursue knowledge. The Internet is almost never mentioned in this book, yet because this is a book describing case after case in which abrupt shifts in the way knowledge is organized result in incredible transformations of human societies, the World Wide Web casts a chilling shadow over the events chronicled within. Reinventing Knowledge tells an impressively cohesive story that really is full of delightful characters and fascinating details. In fact, this quite astonishing ability to weave a coherent narrative through centuries of time and across continents is, if anything, testament in support of Renfrew's emphasis on the power of the mind to develop symbolic cognitive ability.

Ammon Shea's Reading the OED is a different kind of testament to the power of symbols, a sort of cautionary tale that begs its reader to confront this power with a healthy sense of fear and trepidation. It is in part a list of antiquated words – interesting for the odd sorts of things they represent (for example, ruffing [noun]: the stomping of feet as a form of applause) or the stories they tell about the people for whom they were named (grimthorpe [verb]: to restore or renovate an ancient building with excessive spending rather than with skill). But it is also the memoir of a misanthrope who infuses almost every page with his distaste for human beings, as if this project in and of itself – to read a 20-volume dictionary for up to 12 hours a day every day for a year – doesn't sufficiently convey his estrangement.

Reading the OED reads a bit like a Samuel Beckett novel: Its protagonist complains in one passage of the unendurable headaches he gets from reading, then exclaims in the next that "suddenly it was unclear to me why people bothered to do anything besides read." Shea compensates for a dearth of human interaction by talking to mice and anthropomorphizing his dictionaries, and when someone at a lexicography convention accuses him of madness, only Shea is unconcerned. His book even has a sci-fi/horror-style twist ending that gave me a frightening vision of Rod Serling calmly emerging from my closet just as I was reading the final sentence. It seems that the power of the human mind to nourish itself through mere symbols is such that rather than experience some more direct engagement with the world following his isolation, Shea wanted only one thing: to read the OED again.

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