Friday, July 22, 2005



There's a review by Daniel Johnson in this week's Times Literary Supplement, and it's worth praising for a couple of rather unusual reasons. The book in question is Kosmos, Physikalischer Atlas: Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung by Alexander von Humboldt and edited by Heinrich Berghaus. Yes, it's a book in German -- not translated. And on top of that, it costs 99 Euros, which converts to a pretty penny in any currency.

But what a work!

The last thirty years of Humboldt’s life were mainly devoted to one work, which he originally intended to call “The Book of Nature”, but finally entitled Kosmos. Entwurf einer physischen Weltbeschreibung (“Cosmos. Sketch of a Physical Description of the Universe”). In this encyclopedic product of his old age, he created another new genre: an attempt to interpret the vast new range of empirical knowledge to the hugely expanded educated public that had emerged during his lifetime. This monument to perseverance appeared between 1845 and 1862 in five volumes, the last of them a posthumous fragment. It embraces every field of science from cosmology to microbiology, and includes long digressions on seemingly remote subjects such as the aesthetics of nature and 2,457 footnotes, some of essay length. Though Kosmos is almost invariably described as a popular work, it was very much more idiosyncratic than that notion implies. Humboldt certainly made no concessions to his readers’ ignorance: even in a book of such gargantuan proportions, the 9,000 other works that he cites necessitated a remarkable feat of condensation, and Kosmos is stuffed full of facts. The justification for its synthetic character was not merely the need to reach the widest possible public. (It had sold 85,000 copies by his death, a huge number by the standards of the time.)

Vast, in another language, expensive as all hell.... let's face it, I will probably never read it. And that's why it's so wonderful to see TLS, as they will occasionally do, reviewing just such a book. Because despite the notion among some newspapers that book sections are glorified Amazon purchasing guides, the fact remains that for most of us, book reviews are the only way we will ever even get the slightest grasp upon the contents of thousands of books that we will never -- and indeed physically cannot -- get around to purchasing or reading.

A crutch? Yes. But a crutch can be a useful thing sometimes.

If you read enough old magazines and newspapers, you start noticing a funny thing: that a certain percentage -- a small one, but a tangible one -- of their reviews were set aside for works in foreign languages. The epitome of this was the North American Review, which back in the 19th century ran magisterial reviews that were really essays in themselves, each using three or four of the latest works in a field as a jumping-off point; often at least some of these works were foreign or so wonkish that no typical NAR reader could be reasonably expected to ever read them. But that wasn't the point.

The New York Review of Books still holds up some of this tradition -- indeed, the North American Review itself still exists, though only as an unrecognizable wraith of its grand 19th century self. But it would be interesting to see some American publications running a column on untranslated foreign literature column.

Why not? It's been done before....

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