Friday, January 16, 2009

Tainter on collapse books: outstanding review essay

I want to recommend an outstanding book review essay, published in the current issue of Reviews in Anthropology:

Tainter, Joseph A.
2008 Collapse, Sustainabiltiy, and the Environment: How Authors Choose to Fail or Succeed. Reviews in Anthropology 37:342-371.

The title is a clue that one of the books reviewed is Jared Diamond's Collapse; the others are Richardson Gill's The Great Maya Droughts, David Webster's The Fall of the Ancient Maya, and Niccolo Caldararo's Sustainabiltiy, Human Ecology and the Collapse of Complex Societies.

Tainter's essay is very good for a number of reasons, including a nice contextualization of the popularity of the concept of collapse; concise evaluations of the four books; a very interesting discussion of how even technical works by archaeologists are not exempt from scrutiny (and misinterpretation) by the media and the reading public; an an understated use of humor and irony.

Just one example of the latter point. In Collapse, Jared Diamond asks "I have often asked myself, 'What did the Eastern Islander tho cut down the last palm tree say while he was going it?' " (Diamond, p.114). Tainter points out that recent research suggests that the culprits were more likely sheep and goats rather than people with axes. Therefore: "The Easter Islander killing the last tree may have uttered a bleat." (Tainter, p.350).

Finally, Tainter's paper is an example of a genre that is very important for contemporary scholarship: the book review essay. Most book reviews are very short and do not provide space to fully contextualize a work or explore its significance and connections in any detail. But book review essays do allow just this kind of discussion, typically in relation to two or more books. When so many new books pare published, and so many journals publish very few book reviews, good review essays can play a major role in synthesizing, evaluating, and moving forward current themes and topics.

Want to read some good book review essays? Try these sources:

Reviews in Anthropology is a quarterly journal that publishes ONLY book review essays. I highly recommend it for all branches of anthropology, including archaeology.

The Review of Archaeology is an odd annual journal that also consists primarily of book review essays.

Also, many journals that publish book reviews also do occasional book review essays.

Bleat bleat, baaaaaaaaaah

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'm 13 and when I grow up I plan on becoming an anthropogist. My last name is also Tainter which is strange. I think that history reveals itself out in the open then stuck behind a desk lost forever.