Sunday, June 4, 2017

Book Review: Egyptomania

Egyptomania: A History of Fascination, Obsession and Fantasy
Ronald H. Fritze
History, sociology, archaeology

The very last sentence of Egyptomania is this:

Why Egypt is so attractive in popular culture remains something of a mystery, but its existence is undeniable.
That's on page 377. Three hundred seventy seven pages is an awful lot of book to write (or read) without reaching a conclusion. Egyptomania is, basically, a 1.5-inch-thick Wikipedia "In Popular Culture" section. There are paragraphs, sections, and one entire chapter that could have been deleted without much loss. If the book isn't quite a list of everything everyone ever said or wrote or filmed about Egypt, it's not for want of trying. 

As a compendium, Egyptomania is not without its charms. Fritze, although an academic, writes in good clear English rather than in High Academicese, and he displays an excellent sense of humor:
In the case of Isis Unveiled, the Masters provided precipitated pages of text The problem was that many of the precipitated pages had been copied from works by other writers without attribution. Someone had plagiarized and that person was either Blavatsky or one of those Masters. Since an ascended Master would never stoop to plagiarism, that leaves Madame Blavatsky.
But I have to wonder what its editor was doing. For one thing, Egyptomania has a raft of basic copy-editing errors, including serial abuse and neglect of the common North American semicolon. For another, some of the book's assertions should have been gently fact-checked out of existence, such as the frankly bizarre statement that The Hound of the Baskervilles "drew its inspiration from the curse of the 'Unlucky Mummy.'" For a third, there are some exceedingly abrupt logical breaks and grammatical solecisms. Look again, for example, at that closing sentence quoted above. Grammatically, the "it" in "its existence is undeniable" can only refer to Egypt itself. While Egypt's existence is indeed undeniable, I don't think that's what Fritze meant to say. 

Finally, there's a lot of repetition. Also, things get repeated a lot. Not only that, the same basic facts are reiterated over and over. Halfway down page 134 we learn that "Renaissance Rome was the one place in the Europe of that era where a visitor could see and study a large number of Egyptian monuments and artefacts." At the bottom of the same page, we find out that "Rome was the one place in Europe where people could see a large amount of Egyptian artefacts without having to travel to Egypt." It's not just individual factoids; whole paragraphs are rehashed--if not quite so blatantly--two or three times over. This was vexing in Istanbul; in Egyptomania it's completely out of control.

As a resource for scholars, Egyptomania is admirably thorough. As a book for general readers, it's in need of some serious editorial TLC. It's not an unenjoyable read on the tactical level; as a whole, though, it will appeal mainly to the sort of reader who likes reading catalogs.

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