03 August 2010

Stories in Stone (book review!)

Reposted from One Day at a Time.

I just finished reading Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. It occupied me during the slow stretch at work last week, because even on my rather morbid bookshelves I couldn't find anything more perfect to read at a funeral home. Several other items came close, though, and I think I'm going to make a point of choosing my at-work reading accordingly, just to see how long it takes someone to notice.

Besides, I have a certain morbid "I Like Sunlight Too Much And Don't Mope Enough To Be A Goth, But I Still Wear Too Much Black And Don't Mind The Smell of Decomp" reputation to maintain.

It was written (and photographed, kudos for versatility) by Douglas Keister, a man with a rather unfortunate surname (the poor fellow must have been the butt of lots of jokes).

Yes, that was immature of me. I'm done giggling now.

Um, actually, not yet.

Okay, now.

Moving on.

This one was an acquisition from Barnes and Noble's bargain shelves (as was Kwaidan and a decent handful of my other books; apparently either that's where they keep all the really obscure weird stuff, or I'm just broke a lot but still addicted to books... probably both. I bought it on an outing with Greg before I actually moved up here with him, so there were some pleasant memories found in just picking it up again. It amuses me sometimes how many of my books I can actually remember the provenance of, and I will be both happy and sad the day my library is large enough that this changes.

Overall, the book was a nice enough read, although I'm fairly sure it was intended more for use as a guidebook than for sit-down reading, as the title suggests. It's divided into chapters, and each chapter has an introduction and then several encyclopedia-style topical entries, each ranging in length from a few lines to a couple of pages. That makes it handy for looking things up but a little choppy to just read straight through.

I was reading at work and in a somewhat scattered mood over the last few days, so having something in short quickly digestible blocks was actually a plus, under the circumstances.

There were a few slightly erroneous statements that caught my attention, though:

Page 72: "Anubis, Egyptian god of the dead, is depicted with the head of a dog."

Calling Anubis the god of the dead is oversimplifying the Egyptian pantheon a bit; Osiris is technically the ruler of the underworld and the deceased counterpart to the living king Horus. A dead pharaoh was an embodiment of and one with Osiris the way a living pharaoh was an embodiment of and one with Horus. Pretty much all the gods have some role in the preparation, final journey, judgment, or afterlife of the deceased- most of the Egyptian gods are in some way "gods of the dead." Anubis himself was more a god of the funerary process, particularly embalming. Still, that's forgivable except...

Anubis' head was that of a jackal, not a dog. A dog is less like a jackal than you are like a gorilla.

It's a minor enough mistake, except that I would except any book on funerary imagery to at least get the basic features of Anubis' identity right. Maybe I'm just an Egyptology snob.

Page 138: "Word entomologists tell us that the phrase 'gone to pot' may have had its origin as a reference to a cinerary urn."

I'm not sure what a word entomologist is- perhaps someone who studies whether silverfish in libraries prefer to eat pages with more nouns or verbs? I'm equally unsure whether that is a typographical error or, more likely, someone getting the words themselves swapped around, which I've seen happen numerous times. All obscure disciplines beginning with the letter E must be, on some level, interchangeable.

Either way, it's something a copy editor at least should have caught.

On the other hand, "cinerary" is a damn cool word.

These are relatively minor errors, but I found them a little jarring, and they gave me cause to take the rest of the information in the book with a grain of salt, because those were just the errors I recognized. What else could the author have gotten wrong in areas outside my scope of knowledge that I might not catch? Mistakes like that cost some credibility with the reader.

The author regained a portion of that credibility by including a decent bibliography at the end. I'm a sucker for a good bibliography, especially if the book managed to leave me more interested in the topic on the last page than I was on the first- which this one did.

I also appreciated the discussion of Chinese and Japanese iconography, symbolism, and practices. Too many Western studies tend to overlook non-European perspectives, and it was refreshing to find a more comprehensive approach, in addition to the fact that the information itself was an interesting overview.

The photography was beautiful and well-integrated with the text, and the captions were informative and concise.

Having finished Stories in Stone, I'm contemplating following up with a Saturday outing to one of the historic cemeteries in the Bell County area with the digital camera and this handy guidebook. Maybe I'll find something interesting.