September 12, 2012

Book Review: The Keys of Egypt

For my 50th post, I'm reviewing the book I finally finished reading yesterday. Hurray!

I think I have mentioned before that I am very interested in Egyptology. The fascination began when I was about four years old and saw an Aliki book called Mummies Made in Egypt read aloud on Reading Rainbow. Watching The Ten Commandments made my Egyptomania even worse. I still read more nonfiction books on this subject than on any other, and was delighted to find one in the library that I had not noticed before. I am not quite sure why, but this book was hiding next to the fairy tales and folklore.

The Keys of Egypt by Lesley and Roy Adkins tells the story of Jean-Francois Champollion and his lifelong quest to translate the hieroglyphs of Ancient Egypt. Of course everyone knows that Champollion is famous because he did in fact succeed where so many had failed, but it was very interesting to find that the Rosetta Stone, though useful, was not the Holy Grail of decipherment as we are usually led to understand. Champollion's success was due largely to other documents and to his extensive knowledge of the Coptic language, not to the Rosetta Stone inscription. It was also fascinating to learn of his miserable but precocious childhood, the continued revolutionary activities that kept him in trouble all his life, and the malicious, delusional rival he found in an Englishman named Thomas Young. Indeed, Young's ridiculous letters were such fun that they made the whole book worth reading even if the rest had been rubbish!

While I did learn a great deal about Champollion's life and struggles, I still felt that more of his actual words about his methods and conclusions were called for. The wonderful quote on the back dust jacket was really the greatest insight into his view of his work that the reader is given. Footnotes or endnotes are also to be expected but were not present in this book, which was disappointing. I am a nerd and I like to fact-check! The passages about Napoleon's invasion of Egypt, for example, were so written as to make the noted general look a complete fool, and whether this was bias on the part of the authors or the unvarnished truth, I will have to do more research to determine. The works recommended by the authors in the Further Reading section, however, are not going to be easy to obtain. Specific references to their sources throughout the book would have made a huge difference in the reading experience.

My Rating:
3 1/2 out of 5 stars

You can find The Keys of Egypt on Amazon (of course) but try your local independent book store first!

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