I finished L. Sprague de Camp's The Ancient Engineers a few days ago, but haven't written it up until now because I was stuck on how to begin. What to call it? It's not academic writing, at least not in the sense that Contingencies of Deconstruction: Towards a Postcolonial Semiology is, but calling it a popularization, as various people suggested, didn't seem right either. Yes, I thought, it's targeted at the layperson, but it's not exactly Pyramids for Dummies

Ah ha. That was it. In 1960, you could write a book like this, one that assumes the reader is familiar with at least the broader outlines of world history, knowledgeable about geography, and intelligent enough to pick stuff up without needing it broken down for them like they were four years old or USA Today subscribers or both. Today? I could be wrong, but my sense is, not so much: the recent non-fiction books I've seen either target an audience of specialists or the Time/Newsweek/People audience — not much in between, unless they're intended for classroom use. (Guns, Germs and Steel might qualify as an exception.) Again, I could be totally off-base here — maybe there are shelves upon shelves of recent non-narrative non-fiction that assumes you went to a good college and stayed awake in class, yet are still a layperson who just happened to pick up the book because it sounded interesting. If so, I'm open to recommendations.

As for the book at hand: it was pretty good. It's a survey of technological advances in architecture, household items, weaponry and seafaring, covering the Old World from Atlantic to Pacific, starting in ancient Egypt and ending with Leonardo da Vinci (whom de Camp calls "not the first of the modern engineers, but the last of the ancient ones.") I found the tech less interesting in and of itself than as a lens through which to view the history, but as a lens it's pretty cool. Still more interesting were all the little digressions — about astrology, about living in a time of rapid change vs. a stagnant one, about Roman emperors. de Camp is definitely of the 1960-era mold (NB: not a 1960s mold) I mentioned in another article, a smart guy talking to other smart people, not an information generator packing data for storage and transmission, and his wit and occasional editorializing are welcome in an era where similar projects are either dry as death or blatantly pushing an agenda (or both.) In true 1960 fashion, he seems to be a real Age of Reason type... and I couldn't help but note that also in 1960 fashion, whenever de Camp mentions how long a structure like the pyramids or the Colosseum might last, he always adds "barring nuclear war," and when referring to "our descendents," tacks on "if any." So, yeah, I came away from this book with my head newly enriched with some fun facts about early tech, but buzzing with ideas about people's outlooks on things in the late 50s/early 60s. Which I'd already intended to do something with, someday. Hmmm...

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