Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: Gardens, An Essay on the Human Condition

It is an odd thing to read a book about gardens that is written by someone who is not actually a gardener. But, then again, this book is about much more than the growing and arranging of living plants that comprises our notion of a garden.

Robert Pogue Harrison's book is a discussion of the essence and significance of gardens in literature, including poetry, prose, and religious texts. As such, it explains how gardens reflect and embody the human soul. It ranges from different philosophical interpretations of gardens to depictions of them in Renaissance Italian literature to contrasting the symbolism of gardens in the Bible and the Koran, and much more in between. Twentieth-century and twenty-first-century garden imagery is addressed as well, creating a whirlwind of garden interpretation through many continents and centuries in barely 200 pages.

The variety of subject matter sometimes gives Gardens an uneven tempo; the book periodically lurches from an elegant, cogent discussion to a sudden critique of an entirely different era in time or aspect of humanity. Unsurprisingly, Harrison is at his best when discussing Italian literature, which he teaches at Stanford. (I must admit at this point that Renaissance Italian history was my concentration in college, and therefore my familiarity with this subject matter may bias my opinion that these chapters are the best.) Quality expositions on other writers abound, however, particularly Harrison's explanation of Epicurean philosophy and its contortion by modern readers. This chapter alone makes the book worthwhile.

I enjoyed how Gardens taught me about writers whose works I haven't read, such as Pablo Neruda and Karel Capek, the latter who shares with me an understanding of the frustrations of bad soil: "And if you have no appreciation for this strange beauty, let fate bestow upon you a couple rods of clay--clay like lead, squelching and primeval clay out of which coldness oozes..." (31). Harrison's discussions of ancient Greek philosophy and Italian literature also informed and even enthralled me. But while I enjoy reading cantos of The Divine Comedy in Italian (or trying to, because Dante's work is so difficult), other readers might not share my sentiment. Likewise, Harrison's penchant to occasionally veer off into overly academic territory, such as the "objective correlatives" in modern literature, detracts from the garden-based interpretations rather than complementing them.

This book is a lovely read for those interested in philosophy, literature, poetry, and thought-provoking, unorthodox discussions of religious texts. A traditional gardening book it is not; a learned treatise it is.

Dear FTC: I received no compensation for this review. I bought the book with my own hard-earned cash. Thank you.


Mr. McGregor's Daughter said...

Sounds like a deep, dense read, one for contemplating while snowed in with out an internet service or cable. And I mean that in the best possible way.

Jean said...

I imagine it's hard for an academic to not veer into some deep prose (I'm married to one so I know). As MMD says, sounds like a good read for winter days. (I just read a book about Alice Waters and Chez Panisse which was wonderful for all the lovely food moments it included - great for cold weather!).

rambleonrose said...

MMD--Yes, it would be good for that situation. I expected it to be fairly dense, but at times it was a little much. Still, it had some wonderful sections and Harrison deserves credit for appreciating gardens as much as he does, since he doesn't grow one himself.

Jean--You're right about the academic tendencies! I share some of them, which is why I was interested in this book!

Gail said...

A very different approach to gardening as you said so eloquently Rose~~I think we both share an understanding of difficult soil (clay like lead) with the author! Have a sweet holiday~~gail

Rose said...

Now this sounds like my kind of book! I know how Wordsworth and the other Romantics felt about nature, but I have no idea whether they actually gardened. It would be fascinating to learn about this other side of favorite authors and poets. One only has to look at the formal English garden style and see the influence of the thinkers of the 18th century Enlightenment, for example. Another superbly written review, Rose! I'll have to look for this book, but it's one I would probably read in short segments at a time. These days only a fast-paced mystery novel holds my attention for very long:)

Commonweeder said...

I'm working through this book myself. It is a rich mine of ideas about gardens and ways to look at gardens. I'm taking my time, though.

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