Review: The Future of the Past, Alexander Stille

This book was so cool! (Except for the unacceptable way there was no index. What nonfiction book skips indexing??) But it should stand as a lesson in the importance of titles. This is a dreary title, isn’t it? I got the book at the library in a very grudging spirit, because I wanted to read loads of books about conservation and cultural property controversies and archaeological ethics and all that sort of thing, but they didn’t have very many books like that (see previously No Bone Unturned and Stealing History for the only other two books I could find on these topics). So I got this instead, and the title sounded so boring that I put off reading it for days and days, until I had exhausted nearly all my other subway book options (I still had plays left, but they’re not good for subways because they run out too quickly), and then I finally stuck this one in my purse to read on the train. I also put Ender’s Game in my purse because I suspected The Future of the Past would be boring and I would need an alternative.

Not so! It was actually really good and absorbing and cool. If it had had a good title I’d have read it sooner and not given poor Future Jenny bursitis by carrying around a purse with two books in it. Because titles are important.

The Future of the Past is a book about our attitudes toward the past — conserving it, changing it, moving away from it — in many different aspects. There’s a chapter about Latin as a living language, a chapter about attempts to preserve the Sphinx, a chapter about the native species of Madagascar, a chapter about oral vs written culture in Somalia — just all these different things that are changing and being lost because we don’t want to preserve them or don’t know how to preserve them or the things we think will preserve them just end up destroying them more.

Like, here’s a thing. In China and Japan, copying something is considered a viable way of preserving it. Less of an emphasis is placed (says Stille) on individual achievement, so making a really really good copy of a thing isn’t considered forgery. But this really isn’t a compatible view of conservation with the West. Sometimes Western museums will have special exhibits and ask China to send them, you know, whatever, eight terracotta army tomb guys, and China will send maybe four original ones and four really good copies, and the museum will be like, Dude! We can’t display these! They’re forgeries!, and China’s feelings will be hurt because they don’t think of them that way (says Stille). Italy came up with this partnership with China where they would open a conservation school in China, and the Italians will have a classful of students and the teacher will say “Okay. Here’s a bronze helmet from ancient Rome that’s been broken into three pieces. How would you fix this piece up in order to display it at a museum?” And the Chinese students — even second and third-year conservation students! — will be like, “Solder it!”

Interesting, right? There was also a whole chapter about Egypt trying to rebuild the library at Alexandria and all the weird bureaucratic things that make it hard to do that. It reminded me that Alexandrian scholars were the people in the first place who put together the Iliad and the Odyssey as we have them today, using textual criticism. Oo, and there was another chapter about this priest who taught amazing conversational Latin classes in Rome. If you couldn’t afford to pay the school fees, he would teach you for free. He just loves Latin and wants the people to know. (But he hates the Latin textbooks I had as a kid. Whatever, dude. Those books were the best.)

If you fancy a book of really good stories about different aspects of conservation, I strongly recommend The Future of the Past. Ignore how the title makes it sound boring. It’s not boring. You’re welcome.