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Historical joy

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on April 15, 2016

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On the way back from Hartford I read an online article about reducing clutter. The author advises letting go anything that doesn’t “fill you with joy”. Bins decides this is a great excuse for throwing out all my books. “Look at this one,” he says, picking up a small but thick, heavy book called A History of The World In 100 Objects, by Neil MacGregor. “I bet you’ve never even opened it.”

“Give it back this minute!” I snarl. But he starts leafing through it with a contemptuous smirk on his face. “No one ever reads such books.” He opens a random page and holds it up. The photograph shows an exquisite little chariot, all in gold, made around 2,500 years ago, in the time of Cyrus the Great of Persia. Four lively horses are tethered to the front and two men stand within the vehicle. “Bet you don’t know what this is!” Well, as it happens, I do. Because Bins is wrong: I have indeed opened the book.

“Okay, so I admit I’ve not read it from cover to cover,” I say. “But I’ve looked at every one of the objects.” They, the 100 objects chosen to represent different eras, cultures and kingdoms from around the world reside in the British Museum in London, England. The book is based on the BBC series of the same name. “I think it’s the most wonderful way there is, of learning history ...” Bins is clucking and shaking his head however. “O-ho-ho! That all sounds so nice and good-intentioned — but my point is, you do not really READ such books. You just look at them, once, then you put them down on a coffee table.” He looks around. “And the problem is, you don’t have a coffee table!”

I take the book from him. I show him some of the items that I’ve read about. There’s the Rhind Papyrus from around 1550 BC in ancient Egypt, on which we can discern mathematical puzzles about cats, mice and ears of corn. There’s the Moche Warrior Pot, from pre-European Peru, with its wonderfully detailed rendering of a kneeling soldier, bearing arms. There’s the Swimming Reindeer from maybe 50,000 years ago, in France, made from a mammoth’s bone. Being so old, it’s very fragile, representing an Ice Age artist’s vision of two reindeer, beautifully realised, with their eyes bulging, their limbs spread out as if in water. It’s strangely moving, really, to see an artefact from so long ago, and so well crafted.

“Hmmm,” says Bins, trying not to be swayed. “I hope you didn’t choose something French just to change my mind?” I click my tongue. “Don’t be silly! All the objects in the book are equally interesting. Reading about them is like travelling across time and space, imagining the scenes of life in each place where these things were made. If I haven’t read about them all it’s only because...because...” I shrug. “I distract you too much?” says Bins. He takes the book from me and says, “Okay, okay, I’ll read it first and explain it all to you later!” Then he ducks and runs away before I can brain him. Still carrying the book.

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

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Published on April 15, 2016
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