Venetian Red Bookshelf: January Picks

Venetian Red Bookshelf is a monthly feature which highlights books of interest from our bookshelves and studio worktables.

Rogues’ Gallery: The Secret History of the Moguls and the Money that Made the Metropolitan Museum (2009) by Michael Gross

Rogue’s Gallery is a very detailed, often disconcerting and sometimes humorous saga of the epic battle between Art and Commerce. Gross’ book is a gossipy and often lurid account of greed, shenanigans and skullduggery in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 138-year history. Beginning with the post-Civil War moguls who founded the museum, Gross details the conflicts and wrangling over the museum’s mission and methods of acquisition that have taken place among the museum’s relative handful of directors, curators, donors and trustees. The collisions of these giant egos—people who often mistake their wealth and power for wisdom and expertise—does make for entertaining, if sometimes disturbing, reading. There are stories here of individuals committed to the public good, but more common are tales of stolen and looted art and the nefarious dealings of status-seeking philanthropists and ego-driven curators and directors.

Gross chronicles the succession of Met directors. The first director, Luigi Palma di Cesnola, (who was himself involved with some dubious tomb excavating in Cyprus) did not want the museum open on Sundays because he didn’t want the hoi polloi, the working people of New York, to sully his Museum.  Thomas Hoving, director from 1966-77, was a charismatic man who presided over a period of huge expansion and impressive acquisition (and has the dubious distinction of bequeathing the world the blockbuster exhibit.)  Philippe de Montebello, who recently stepped down after a thirty-year reign, largely realized his vision of making the Met a more culturally inclusive institution, witness the 84,000 items from an impressive array of world cultures acquired during his tenure.

Unfortunately, from my point of view, the fascinating artistic stories behind some of the two million paintings and objects that grace the Metropolitan’s stupendous and inspiring collection, are not the focus of this book. Gross, a journalist and best-selling author, often indulges in a gleefully vitriolic tone. There’s a lot in this book to make it worth reading, but I would have preferred to read more about the art itself, and the incredibly complex inner workings of the museum, and less Vanity Fair-style gossip.  As the author states:

[The Metropolitan] is a huge alchemical experiment, turning the worst of man’s attributes—extravagance, lust, envy, avarice, greed, egotism and pride—into the very best, translating deadly sins into priceless treasure.

Christine Cariati

Short History of Nearly Everything

A Short History of Nearly Everything (2004)
by Bill Bryson

Hours in the studio for days on end sorely tests even the most voluminous of iPod playlists. That’s one reason I turned to audiobooks last year. The other reason was more expedient—there’s just too damn much out there to read only at night.

Were it not for the audio version (which SF Public Library allowed me to download right to my computer), I’m not sure I would have gotten through Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything. Not that the material isn’t fascinating or his narrative, engrossing; on the contrary, in A Short History… Bryson spins an absolutely riveting yarn. But at 500+ pages the book could well have sat on my bedside table for months.

While listening to the first disk, another advantage of the audio version became apparent. The ground that Bryson covers in this book is massive. Try to imagine compressing four million or so years of Earth’s history and human knowledge about that history into one volume and you’ll begin to understand the enormity of his task. (You’ll wonder how he held it to just one volume.) I was happy to be sitting in my own private lecture hall listening to an animated professor engage me in the material than to be slogging through the syllabus on my own.

In a whirlwind narrative Bryson covers the nature of space, the big bang, the formation of the planets (Earth in particular), geology, biology, physics, paleontology, plate tectonics, DNA, and the atomic bomb. And he makes some esoteric science all perfectly cogent. I enjoyed the background on the various disciplines, but it was his tales of the lives of various scientists, their discoveries,  and professional bickering that really captivated me.

Bryson summarizes the lives and achievements of celebrated scientists the likes of Newton, Darwin, and Einstein, but entices with tidbits about their peculiarities. Newton, for example, inserted a long needle into his eye socket and twirled it around, just to see what would happen. Einstein had a child out of wedlock.He covers lesser-known scientists like Englishman Fred Hoyle, controversial inventor of the “big Bang” phrase, whose cosmic theories ended up being completely debunked by later scientists. He also tackles the outright obscure, not to mention eccentric, scientists like Henry Cavendish, an English chemist, who perfected the means of capturing gases over water (which ultimately led to the discovery of hydrogen). Cavendish was so shy that his own housekeeper communicated with him by letter.

Bryson is a popular writer of the best kind—he wrangles an enormous amount of historical material into a lively and accessible narrative. At its core A Short History… is  the story of human progress, and what an amazing tale it is when you hear it encapsulated like this.

If I had any complaint about the book it would only be that its material requires close listening and even relistening, and this interrupted the process of working on my art. By the end of the book I was convinced the education I received was more than worth the inconvenience to my art.

Liz Hager

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3 Responses to “Venetian Red Bookshelf: January Picks”

  1. Margaret Barr Says:

    An amazing read! I enjoyed the book several years ago and it stays with me as an all time favorite potentially calling for a second reading.

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