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4.3 out of 5 stars
The Future of the Past
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on June 10, 2003
Format: Paperback
This is an extraordinarily informative and entertaining book that sheds light on the problems and differing worldwide attitudes toward conversation and preservation. The author decries the rapid disappearance of historical landmarks, statues, buildings, art and sculpture - as do most of us. The modern effect whereby observation leads directly to degradation he has named the "Heisenberg" principle, based on the German scientist's observation that the very act of viewing affects the properties of light. Moisture, oxygen, germs, exposure - all of these are detrimental agents and all are associated with people.
He also decries the loss of those items that are elusive - tribal customs now recorded in any medium that have been passed from generation to generation for thousands of years, languages such as Latin, even - and surprisingly - outmoded technology. It is estimated that an enormous collection of data in the National Archives is for all intents and purposes lost since we have lost the technology required for viewing/hearing such data.
The differing cultural views on preservation were examined, from the rather recent Western one whereby objects remain in their natural state to the Oriental practice of repeatedly copying (in detail) ancient objects to the oral history of Africa. He rightly recalls that this process has been recurring since mankind recognized ancient works as something different.
But this book was also a personal journey since the author became intimately involved with the participants of this saga. From taking Latin classes in Rome to visiting Chinese and Italian scholars to reviewing the new National Archives and the Vatican Library, this is a "hands on" book that reads like a labor of love.
Our prosperous culture has created such sins as urban sprawl, deforestation, pollution, crowding, fast food - all of which directly affect not only the objects of the past but our view of the importance of past people's and events. It is this latter problem that seems all the most disturbing. A close reading reveals that the modern urge to preserve is directly related to the rise of industrialism.
What the book lacked were definitive solutions and perhaps that is not by accident. What is NOT needed are quick fixes or top down solutions. One of the things he has documented with sorrow is the repetitive nature of socialist dictatorships to screw things up with top-down solutions - whether it be Egypt, China or any number of African countries. Solutions should be from the ground up and must be in accordance with the wishes of the inhabitants of the affected area.
Not only cultural but religious views have affected our past. How much knowledge was destroyed when the library in Alexandria was burned or how much religious statuary was destroyed in the first five centuries of Christiandom? And how many hundreds of thousands of paintings and statues have followers of Islam defaced or destroyed in the recent past? Rare is the culture or religion that demonstrates reverence for alien peoples and the products of their culture.
The final chapter sums up what we know, what we don't know and where we go from here. An important book that should grace the libraries of every literate American. Get the book, contemplate its message.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on August 8, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Stille's work is fabulous, insightful, intelligent...whether you have just acquired a taste for history and preservation, or whether you are a seasoned professional in these subjects, there's something for you in every one of the essays that make up this fascinating--and often disturbing--book. Neither pandering nor mired in technical jargon, this book will satisfy amateur and professional alike.
Stille's experience ranges from one corner of the world to the other and his reportage demonstrates that no matter how disparate the cultures, all are struggling with the insistent presence and immense pressure of The Past.
I've gone back to this book over and over since first reading it and I anticipate that it will remain a permanent fixture of my library.
Highest recommendation!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on February 6, 2004
Format: Paperback
"Stille takes us on a whirlwind tour of the world's natural and cultural resources, from the most prominent, such as the Sphinx and pyramids of Egypt, to the exotic, such as word carving in the East Indes. He shows that perhaps more than ever societies around the world are being forces to come to terms with the past, what it means, and how they want to preserve it. Approaches to historic preservation have been as diverse as the problems. The one commonality seems to be a heightened urgency of the problem. As societies have adopted some degree of capitalism and modern technology, they have often experienced a growing anxiety about the loss of tradition. As technological change has made available previously unimagined tools for the preservation and stuffy of the past, it has also brought about unprecedented potential to destroy natural and cultural objects. Social and geographic mobility has also had a profound effect. As Stille points out, `Paradoxically, the rootlessness of contemporary society has created a tremendous yearning for a connection with ancient or vanished civilizations.' He illustrates with numerous examples how this `double-edged nature of technological change' (p. xvii) is playing out around the world.
"Stille's stories demonstrate the common thread running through the debates about both environmental protection and cultural preservation: he realizes that `some of our notions about nature [are] deeply related to issues I was dealing with in the chapter on monuments and museums' (p. xviii). For example, he looks at the debate over who controls `endangered' resources or artifacts. Who decides what gets protected and what does not? The ever-present irony in these debates is that the Western preservationists, environmentalists, and art historians alike, concerned about preserving the past and diverse cultures and societies, often seek to impose their own Western values on the very cultures they purport to be interested in `saving.' It seems that the modernist idea of perpetual change leading to progress has been replaced by an equally postmodernist view that all change is bad and that preservation is the only good. Trying to implement such preservation strategies has often brought Western activists into conflict with the very peoples and cultures they claim to be helping, raising a question about whose interests conservation actually serves: the conservationists or those whose culture is being `preserved'?"
--
Excerpted from a review essay, "Can the Past and Future Coexist," by Matthew Brown, in "The Independent Review," Winter 2004.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on August 2, 2002
Format: Hardcover
Fascinating! Couldn't put it down. I found out alot about conservation, past and present, good and bad. Did you know that copying in China is an honorable profession and that Somalia is noted for its poetry? This is just two of the chapters. The writing is not pedantic at all, but reads like a good mystery, one page after another. Hated to see it end.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 15, 2003
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
overall excellent book though author digresses in last chapter with minimal basis, e.g., implying - through other thinkers - that internet is more of an echo chamber and likely leads people to be less politically involved. every other chapter is a gem unto itself ~ a fascinating work!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 26, 2010
Format: Paperback
This book is full of howlers!
It mentions the shade on the south side of the sphinx - Isn't that the side facing the sun?
There is a reference to "the summer equinox". There is no summer equinox - only a summer solstice.
There is a statement that "algae... produce more than one and a half times their weight in oxygen" but there is no time-frame: is that per second or over their lifetime?
There is talk of "the marine life of the river". Shouldn't marine life be in the sea?
I finally gave up in exasperation on page 112 when I was told that "eutrophic" means that "something is eating itself", together with the explanation that "eu" means "self" and "troph" means eat: To mistakenly use the word "eutrophic" instead of "autophagic" is bad enough, but to be given a false etymology compounds the error to the degree that I felt I could no longer have faith in anything the the author had to say, and I gave up.
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on November 28, 2009
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
How do we preserve who we are, and what we have been a part of? Does it matter if we do? This book was assigned for a Master's course I am currently taking. It is beautifully written, with eye-opening essays about how we record and preserve our history, and why some cultures value that preservation differently, or not at all. I had no idea an assigned book could be a page turner, but this one is. It was the only book assigned out of eight, that had no pictures, glossy plates, maps or diagrams, yet, I did not miss a single image because Stille paints his portraits and sets his stage with beautifully chosen words. This book is a series of collected essays that reveal the way different societies value and set out to preserve (or not) their past. When I finished a chapter, I found myself going on the Internet, trying to find out more, seeing if there had been a follow up to the story he told. I can think of no better compliment to an author than that- to make me care enough about the subject to follow up on it. Our history, how we define ourselves, is made up of so many factors and layers of time. The implied oral histories, folklore and legends, the tangible artifacts, caverns, structures built by our ancestors - the way we communicate- through language, song and poetry.

Stille closes with a frightful examination of where the digital age is heading, and how we are going to be able to store and preserve the bytes and bits of information and wisdom that are accumulating at exponential speed. The art of writing, and the vulnerability words face when they are placed own on paper, or on electronic platforms. We now read letters in fonts, on screens. We don't see the author's handwriting, flourishes, or the color of pen ink chosen, the stationery selected. We've gone digital, and now, emails exist in a stored e-cloud and letters between lovers, friends and family are not tucked away in a dresser bureau drawer, held together with a ribbon. Is progress ushering in a new way to lose the traditions we treasure?

My favorite chapter was about Rev. Reginald Foster, who is passionately trying to keep a "dead language," Latin, alive. Foster went onto some fame in Bill Mahr's film, Religulous, but Stille captured his essence and personality first and best! If you Google Foster or see him on YouTube, you will know how accurate and lovingly Stille portrayed him with his words.He does the same in all his essays;there is something here for every region, every culture and every interest. You will come away fascinated by subjects you never heard of before, and by issues that you heretofore never concerned yourself with. Expand that awareness...and buy this book!
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on September 15, 2010
Format: Hardcover
Stille takes the reader to eleven locations/cultures and explains how the past (oral/written history, monuments, etc.) is perceived, evaluated, and managed in the information age. The topics he chooses to cover are interesting and he explores them with great detail, covering several sides of every issue. Stille's journalistic writing style is great, but it can take getting used to- it sometimes feels like you are reading a book-length Time magazine article. Some of the information is now dated (book published in 2002) but that makes you actually want to know what these people/cultures are up to today. I recommend this book to anyone interested in history, anthropology, technology, or the environment.
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1 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 25, 2006
Format: Paperback
Admittedly, I purchased this book because I wanted to read what Alexander Stille's understanding was of the issues of the future of the past, i.e. preserving digital cultural heritage. His concerns with the challenges facing those that collect and maintain heritage, either institutionally or personally are valid, whether they are analogue or digital. What is presented however is eleven chapters that are concerned with the future of the past, mostly analogue, with links, some tenuous, to the social and economic issues associated with digital heritage content production, ownership, and preservation.

Stille writes most convincingly when he is focusing on the case studies he is familiar with and drawing upon his understanding of history, culture, politics and print technology. He outlines the history, provides context, adds his own observations or relays anecdotes and it makes for interesting reading. He sites all manner of influences to the decline of civilisation as we know it, but the evidence he brings forward to outline the contention in the subtitle 'how the information age threatens to destroy our cultural heritage' or his analysis of that is fragmentary and superficial. It is not until chapter eleven where the issues being faced by the US National Archives are outlined that the he really starts to engage with this contention and by chapter twelve, the conclusion, there is simplistic generalisation and the debate appears to veer off into the evils of technology per se and the breakdown of civilisation, to the point he states: "Fragmentation, depoliticization, the decline of newspapers and reading, the personalization of media, the decline of the humanities, the replacement of the citizen with consumer are consequences of electronic technology's gradual replacement of print as our preeminent medium. If print was the technology that helped create our sense of history - the complex sense of periodization and cause and effect - television is a flat world in which everything occurs in a consumer present." (p338) which is very Doomsday-ish.

His final words are: "If people continue to feel that they are losing control of their lives and that they are losing their cultural traditions, they will work to regain control, using technologies in ways that we have not yet imagined." (p339). I think humans have done and continue to do this with what resources they have and through innovation and this is the golden thread that runs through his chapters, the human desire to hold onto the past, draw it into the present and possibly the future. This was the most interesting discussion point, about whether it is preserved "as is" and/or whether it is recreated, and that debate does have links with digital preservation in theories and methodologies associated with emulation or migration technologies and strategies.
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on March 15, 2012
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
This is a fantastic book that really opens your eyes to issues of archaeology, preservation, and tradition. The book came in great condition from an outside seller and it came as scheduled. No complaints and I think it is immensely interesting.
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