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First Impressions: The Buried Book

Posted on 18 August 2009 at 9:56 pm in Reviews.

Is it possible to review a book you haven’t even finished yet? I’m not yet halfway through The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh and it’s already among my favorite non-fiction works. Written by David Damrosch, an English professor at Columbia, it is a fascinating account, moving backwards through time, of the discovery and translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh, widely regarded at the world’s oldest known legend.

The Buried Book

The Gilgamesh myth itself is something I’ve long been attracted to; I first read the Penguin Classics edition as a college freshman and more recently enjoyed the far more poetic (but less literally translated) version by Stephen Mitchell. My interest in Mesopotamia and Assyria extends much further back than my exposure to Gilgamesh, however. As a boy I was riveted by historical accounts of the Sumerian City-States and their successor empires, and I even named a cat Ashurbanipal for Assyria’s greatest King (and early library benefactor).

Thus, I was the perfect “demographic” for Damrosch’s account. But I believe this work could appeal to almost anyone. In describing the sometimes foolhardy efforts of the 19th century British adventurer George Smith, the Iraq-born archeologist Hormuzd Rassam, and the swaggering soldier Sir Henry Rawlinson, Damrosch captures the essence of an important Golden Era of Archeology, reviving names forgotten to all but the experts and revealing their fascinating lives. Each of those men, and others profiled in the book, had important, key achievements in unearthing Mesopotamia’s vital past. Each explorer also had significant faults, in either their attitude or their methodology, but Damrosch addresses these and provides a balanced account that avoids hagiography.

As a student of archival practice and research, the work also serves as an interesting window into my professional world: asides from Damrosch describe his own process of research, such as his exploration into the archives of the British Library.

I’ll continue reading The Buried Book, especially as it promises a literary analysis of the Gilgamesh myth in its later chapters. I’ll report back with my final thoughts.