Sunday, October 28, 2007

John Ash: A Byzantine Journey

This book almost made me do two things: 1) stop my "get through all unread books from A-Z project. 2)Break my almost never unbroken rule of not finishing a book. even a bad one.

This book is mind-boggling, and not in the good sense. Mind boggling, like "how did he get a publisher?" Mind boggling, like "ok, he got a publisher, why didn't his editor help out?" Mid boggling like "uh, what is John Ash trying to do here?"

I was basically confused throughout 90-97% of this entire book, which was disappointing (and good reason for less obsessive people to stop reading the book). I can't exactly explain what this book is: in a way, it's a travel book, describing I *think* Greece and Turkey, as Ash travels around looking at ruins. In a way, it's a history book, describing the Byzantine empire. In a way, it's a revisionist history of the Byzantine empire and art, as Ash attempts to put both back on the map: some of his sources basically wrote of this empire as barbaric, decadent, and not worth second thought. Ash disagrees. I might agree with Ash if I had any idea what was going on in this book.

From the beginning- the maps- I was confused. They are beautiful, but poorly done. I had to look at them multiple times to even understand which lines were which, which was a blow-up, etc. It was downhill from there. The book talks about so many esoterica things, from architecture, art, geography, history, etc, that a glossary was definitely in order. There was no glossary. No footnotes, no endnotes, nothing. And definitely no terms described in the text. Simple (?) words like "capital" (I don't know what that means but it was repeated so often in context, that I take it it means something having to do with Byzantine architecture) to complex ones like "nartharux."

I was also totally boggled by geography/terminology. "Greeks": are we referring to the Greek Empire "Greeks" (sometimes Ash is) or modern day, or even century-ago Greeks? The map doesn't even include Greece, so I had no way of knowing. Similarly, though the Turks and the Turkmen (who I take it were different, but again, not defined) featured promininently in this book, I could rarely tell when we were discussing modern day people who lived in Turkey, Turks of an empire or Turkmen. Totally confusing.

I could have learned a lot from this book about subjects I know nothing about- Greece, Turkey, Byzantium, art, architecture. Instead I feel like I know less than I started with. I can't imagine who would enjoy this book- it's certainly not light reading, it's not a travel book if you're in this (which?) area. More pictures would help, certainly, since there is no glossary! And experts in any of these fields are already going to know all about the empires, the art and architecture, etc, and not need "fluff" of a travel book.

Definitely, skip it.