Duck Duck Book

10 – ornament of the world
01.31.2005, 12:02 am
Filed under: history & geography

The ornament of the world : how Muslims, Jews, and Christians created a culture of tolerance in medieval Spain / María Rosa Menocal ; [foreword by Harold Bloom].
Boston : Little, Brown, c2002.
[MCL call number: 946.02 M547o 2002; three copies, no holds]

This book was heartily recommended to me by a library patron.  She came to the reference desk in the Literature and History room and confessed that she was looking for a book she’d read before, she was sorry to be a bother, but, embarrassingly, she couldn’t remember the author’s name or the title.  (Many, perhaps hundreds of library patrons have made similar confessions to me, so you can see it is not an uncommon difficulty in which to find one’s self.)  She described the topic: The book was about how people in Spain were very multicultural in the middle ages.  You know, Islam and Judaism and Christianity, they co-existed and people just lived with each other in a friendly way that people don’t now.  And there was a flowering of literature, science, everything.

Well, because the book has such a describes-the-topic title, I found it easily, and it was even on the shelf and available for the patron to check it out.  She stopped on her way back past my desk, showed me the book, and then spent about 10 minutes describing how beautifully written it was, how it had changed her perspective on European history in general, and more.  It was a very effective book-talk (as we call them in the library biz), and so I placed a hold on the book for myself. 

And she was right.  Despite the foreword by Harold Bloom (who I rather irrationally despise), the book delivers in a way that I did not expect.  Menocal provides a brief historical introduction at the beginning of the book, but the main bulk of the text is taken up with short essays about different people and the cultural impact they had.  These are arranged more or less chronologically, and in them Menocal discusses architecture and urban planning, poetry, philosophical and scientific literature, translations, libraries, multilingualism, political alliances and how they affected various aspects of culture, and religious agreements and disagreements.  Menocal also discusses some of of the ways that Andalusian culture has been viewed in the time between the eighth century and now, which is interesting as well. 

The text of the book is followed by an excellent bibliography, which is presented in a narrative style, rather than as a list.  Primary sources discussed in the main text are listed according to the page number on which they appeared (both commentaries and translations are included here).  There is a wide-ranging section of recommendations for other readings in literature, from The Arabian Nights to The Moor’s Last Sigh, one of histories, and one of reference books.


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