Culture: The Story of Us

Culture: The Story of Us coverCulture: The Story of Us, From Cave Art to K-Pop
Martin Puchner
W. W. Norton & Company (February 7, 2023), 371 pages
Kindle edition $16.90, Amazon hardcover $31.50

When I saw this book listed as an upcoming release in a New York Times rundown, I knew it was something I wanted to read. I originally thought about describing it as a Western Civilization course focused on specific individuals, but that would be unfair. The author has a global perspective, going well beyond the West.

He opens the book in his introduction describing ancient cave art from 35,000 BCE. The first chapter delves into the world of Egyptian queen Nefertiti and her husband Akhenaten who upended Egyptian polytheism with their focus on the worship of Aton, the disk of the sun. He discusses Plato and his view of the ideal society, certainly central to western civ. However, Puchner points out that Plato was a great admirer of Egyptian culture, something we often forget when making him central to western thought. Puchner then heads to India, where king Ashoka built an empire and a culture in the third century BCE.

The author discusses ancient Pompeii and its cultural diversity. He points out that Pompeii was a provincial town, and while we have so much preserved from the city that it “is simply too good a time capsule not to be used,” it is not necessarily typical of the Roman empire. Giving ample attention to the East, Puchner discusses Buddhist thought and diplomacy in ancient China. The author writes about an Ethiopian queen and the legends about her affair with King Solomon, Christian mysticism, and Aztec encounters with the Spanish.

Puchner devotes considerable space to literature and literacy. He discusses how Baghdad became a storehouse of knowledge shortly after the rise of Islam. He describes how Charlemagne, though illiterate himself, ordered the collection of manuscripts from throughout the empire. His scholars were faced with a variety of scripts from across Europe, so to simplify matters they developed a new script to improve legibility. That was Carolingian minuscule, the basis for our modern scripts.

In the modern era Puchner writes about George Eliot, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans and who wrote historical works under her own name. Puchner then discusses Japanese art, and in the last chapter describes Nigerian cultural conflicts with the west while the country sought its independence.

The subtitle of the book is a bit misleading, as we see nothing of K-Pop until the epilogue, but the author does a superb job of helping us to widen our definition of the word “culture.”

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