cover image Culture: The Story of Us from Cave Art to K-Pop

Culture: The Story of Us from Cave Art to K-Pop

Martin Puchner. Norton, $35 (368p) ISBN 978-0-393-86799-2

The circuitous paths by which art, literature, customs, and ideology diffuse through and transform the world are traced in this exhilarating treatise. Harvard English professor Puchner (The Drama of Ideas) spotlights works that crystallize episodes of cultural cross-pollination, including the famous bust, discovered in 1912, of ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti, leader of a monotheistic religious movement that influenced early Judaism; a medieval Japanese noblewoman’s diary, which reveals the deep imprint of Chinese poetry and manners on Japanese society; enigmatic Aztec picture-writing books and contemporary Albrech Dürer prints, which exemplify the incipient gulf between books as objets d’art and as commodities; a portrait of Haitian statesman Jean-Baptiste Belley and its link to Parisian salons; and the resonances between British colonialism and post-independence Nigerian literature apparent in Wole Soyinka’s play Death and the King’s Horseman. Along the way, Puchner analyzes the ingenious mechanisms by which culture is stored, transformed, and spread. (By carving his Buddhist ethical precepts onto giant stone monoliths, the ancient Indian philosopher-king Ashoka cannily assured that they would not just persuade his subjects but tempt scholars thousands of years later into deciphering and discussing them.) Elegantly written and full of erudite lore, this vibrant history illuminates the inveterate human yearning for expression. Photos. (Feb.)