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Book Reviews

Who were these poets, architects, and sculptors?

By Scott Kim
Mar 1, 1999 6:00 AMNov 12, 2019 6:03 AM


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by Shanti Menon

Maya Edited by Peter Schmidt, Mercedes de la Garza, and Enrique Nalda. Rizzoli International Publications, 1998, $85.

More than a thousand years ago, Mayan artisans from the island of Jaina, off the western coast of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, sculpted strikingly lifelike clay figurines. They modeled people from all walks of life, from lords in regal dress to weavers at work, taking care to show the details that distinguish individuals. Some statuettes, for instance, sport scars, filed teeth, or cranial deformations--Jaina mothers tied boards around their babies' heads, making the skulls grow flat or elongated. These sculptures, along with other art--painted pots, illustrated texts, ruined cities, and rituals practiced by modern Mayan people--have helped scholars understand this ancient civilization of astronomers, temple builders, and poets. Maya, a glossy, hefty volume, presents a comprehensive view of the Mayan past and present. Eerie jade masks, vessels shaped like animals, and stone statues of gods and warriors seem to float off stark black backgrounds. Almost every page is illustrated, with photographs of ruins like the lushly forested Tikal, in Guatemala, or windswept Tulum, on the shores of the Caribbean Sea, and with maps, hieroglyphics, jewelry, and artifacts. Several spectacular four-page foldouts reveal panoramic views of Palenque and the pyramids of Chichen Itza. Twenty-nine essays, written by leading scholars in varying degrees of penetrability, examine the history, geography, architecture, and worldview of different Mayan communities, as well as the interactions between them. The Maya were never a homogeneous bunch, as the essays make clear. They were several disparate groups with their own languages and customs, tied together by a shared culture. They believed the same creation myth, worshiped many of the same gods, and performed their religious rituals in pyramidal temples built in the same steplike style. Today their 6 million descendants live in southern Mexico, Central America, and the United States, speak 25 languages, and still offer maize to the gods whose images grace this book. Order from Amazon.com.

Magnitude 8: Earthquakes and Life Along the San Andreas Fault.Philip L. Fradkin. Henry Holt, 1998, $27.50.

Outsiders, their imaginations dancing with visions of ruined buildings, killer waves, and gaping fissures in the unstable ground, often ask Californians if they worry about earthquakes. Surprisingly, many don't. The threat seems to nag only at the back of their minds. This book could change that. Fradkin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, begins by painting a vivid, frightening scenario: a magnitude 8 temblor--the long-awaited "big one"--strikes San Francisco; 28,000 people die, and damage exceeds $200 billion.

That part of the book is speculation. The rest is facts. While recounting his journeys up and down the state along the San Andreas Fault, interviewing scientists and residents and probing the twisted, mangled geology, Fradkin details California's historic quakes, including Fort Tejon in 1857, San Francisco in 1906, Northridge in 1994. Stories of other legendary quakes--Lisbon; New Madrid, Missouri; Tangshan, China--clarify the reality that more than California is at risk. The language is deliberately nonscientific, yet no scientist could argue with the message: earthquake preparedness is a matter of individual responsibility, but an individual's fate is largely a matter of luck. Order from Amazon.com.

--Kathy A. Svitil

The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century's On-Line Pioneers. Tom Standage. Walker, 1998, $22.

When Victoria was a young queen, before there were airplanes, plastic forks, lightbulbs, vacuum cleaners, or smart bombs, there was an Internet. "A worldwide communications network whose cables spanned continents and oceans, it revolutionized business practice, gave rise to new forms of crime, and inundated its users with a deluge of information," writes Standage, a London science journalist. The invention that made this revolutionary network possible, he explains in this delightful history of communications technology, was not the computer but the electric telegraph.

In the mid-1820s most messages in the United States traveled no faster than the messenger who carried them; simultaneous transmission of information across hundreds of miles seemed like a dream from the Arabian Nights. But by 1844, a set of wires had carried news of the birth of Victoria's second son from Windsor to London. Another set had carried the words "What hath God wrought" from Washington to Baltimore. In the decade that followed, wires snaked across Europe and America, and an undersea cable joined continents. Then, as now, culture sprang up around the Net, complete with its own language and etiquette. Lovers met and married online. Users devised secret codes (and their rivals cracked them). Businessmen fretted about privacy, governments about security. The world shrank: by 1874, a message traveling from London to Bombay and back took four minutes, not ten weeks. Newspaper readers began to demand timely foreign coverage. The nature of war changed: for the first time, governments at home could communicate with field commanders during battle.

No less colorful than the changes wrought by the new telegraph were its inventors. Claude Chappe, an eighteenth-century Frenchman, devised the electric telegraph's optical precursor, a series of towers topped with wooden machines bearing huge, movable wooden arms that could be used like semaphore (which Chappe also invented). Alas, Chappe succumbed to depression and paranoia, then killed himself by jumping into a well outside the Paris Telegraph Administration. He was buried under a tombstone decorated with a telegraph tower displaying the sign for "at rest." Chappe's competition in America, the hapless portrait painter and amateur inventor Samuel F. B. Morse, held the American patents for the electric telegraph but saw only a small fraction of the royalties due him. His British counterparts, William Fothergill Cooke and Charles Wheatstone, spent decades locked in a bitter feud. Although Cooke and Wheatstone's telegraph used a clever arrangement of magnetized needles to spell out messages by pointing to letters, Morse's system of dots and dashes proved more efficient and reliable. It took the public a while to understand that the wires carried only representations, not objects. Standage tells a story about a Prussian woman who showed up in a telegraph office with a dish of sauerkraut she wanted sent to her son. If soldiers could be sent to the front by telegraph, she insisted, surely her sauerkraut could be sent the same way.

Like today's computer networks, the telegraph system consisted of local nodes (telegraph offices) strung together. Operators received messages, then relayed them to the next station, which meant that any message could pass under many pairs of potentially prying eyes. Telegraph users turned to codes to keep messages private and to compress them (companies often charged per word or per letter). The Indian Department of Agriculture, for example, used a code in which the word envelope meant "Great swarms of locusts have appeared and ravaged the crops." Banks developed codes to make online commerce safe. Many governments, worried about spies, con artists, lottery cheats, market manipulators, and other members of the information underworld, outlawed encryption in a move that foreshadowed laws forbidding Americans to export encryption software. Victorian Web rebels responded by embedding codes in innocent-sounding messages.

Standage's parallels between the old Internet and the new bring the nineteenth century into focus as a newfangled age: "The electric telegraph was, in many ways, far more disconcerting for the inhabitants of the time than today's advances are for us. If any generation has the right to claim that it bore the full bewildering, world-shrinking brunt of such a revolution, it is not us--it is our nineteenth-century forebears." Order from Amazon.com.

--Polly Shulman

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