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The Creators – Daniel Boorstin

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When I saw Daniel Boorstin’s obituary back in February, it made me realize that while I had enjoyed his book The Discoverers, for some reason I hadn’t read any of his other books. (Actually, I know the reason: too many books, only one lifetime to read them.)

That spurred me to pick up his follow-up book The Creators: A History of Heroes of the Imagination, which was published in 1992. It is a fast-paced look at famous creators throughout history — architects, sculptors, painters, writers, musicians — a survey that he manages in 747 pages. Obviously, he only skims the surface. Possibly the longest time spent on any one creator was Shakespeare, who gets roughly twelve pages. An English professor might spend twice as long on an introduction to a book on Shakespeare’s eating habits. But this book is not meant to teach the English Lit major about literature, or teach the art historian about art. It is a work of popular history that aims to expose the reader to as many paths as possible. It’s then up to them to see if they want to forge ahead any farther. (Yeah! Yeah! More Chaucer!)

In a book about creators, he starts by looking at Creation with a capital C, by seeing how different religions look (or don’t look) at the creation of the world. For instance, the major Eastern religions generally ignore the topic altogether. There’s not much in the way of Creation myths for Hindus, Buddhists or Confucianists. It’s really the Judeo-Christians who go all out for Creation. The Muslim world then reverses course, especially in regard to the Koran, which they feel is uncreated.

Then it is on the creative people itself. Boorstin starts with “The Power of Stone” at Stonehenge and Egypt, and ends the book with a brief epilogue on what he felt was the newest art form, film. His coverage is part chronological, and partly by subject matter, but he doesn’t move in lockstep. For instance, his section on “The Human Comedy” follows literature from Dante all the way up to Dickens. He then switches over to art, picking up with Giotto in the 13th Century and moving up to Michelangelo. From there, it’s on to music, in a section that runs from Bach all the way up to Stravinsky. This makes the transitions less jarring than if he looked at art all the way from the cave painters to Picasso, and then went all the way back to Homer to start his coverage of literature.

If you consider yourself a Heavyweight Intellectual, just curl your lip in disgust and move on; this book isn’t for you. On the other hand, if you are the type of person who hears the name Raphael and thinks “Turtle”, then The Creators just might expand your horizons a little. There’s something for the vast middle ground, too. While I consider myself conversant about the biggies like Shakespeare or Mozart, there were plenty of creators like Dante, Rabelais, Gibbon or Verdi where I learned something. In a way, this book is something like An Incomplete Education, for it helps fill in the gaps where you dozed off in the Survey class, or where you didn’t get to study at all. Boorstin, who was Librarian of Congress, a history professor, and a director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, makes it an interesting study.

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About Bruce Kratofil

  • Do you mean to say that if you found the book intriguing, then you’re probably an idiot? That’s me then. I suppose it was superficial in some places, but that’s probably going to be true of any survey of Western art — and I can’t think of many that take on so much territory and boil it down so well (although I’m sure there are some). The problem I had was that he never really explained why Da Vinci was the world’s greatest painter — eventhough he told some great stories about him — and I disagreed with some of his choices in the artists he chose to profile. But man, I thought all the stuff at the beginning was really enlightening, didn’t you? It was news to me, for example, that the Second Commandment — “Thou shalt not make unto thee a graven image, nor any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above” — at one time really meant exactly that: God makes art, not you, and and if you try to do it you’re trying to be God, and that’s blasphemy. So all that history of how people got past that and developed the arts in general was just fascinating to me.

  • “Do you mean to say that if you found the book intriguing, then you’re probably an idiot?”

    No — the point I was trying to make was that a small sub-sector of the population (think of the loud mouth professor standing in the movie line in “Annie Hall”) won’t like it — but that most people would be able to learn something.

    Actually, I was most intrigued by something else in the first part — the fact that most other religions don’t have creation stories.