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Sunday, June 19th, 2011

Time Event
10:26p
Dead people's books …
Today's volume found its way into my hands via the famed Newberry Library Book Fair, which we attend pretty much every year (typically on “half-price Sunday”). One of the things I've noticed about the Newberry sale versus the ones at After-Words or Open Books is the significantly higher percentage of material on hand is very clearly “estate” left-overs. It seems that, unless one has a “willable” library (my Mom, several years before her death, gave her extensive collection of cookbooks and other “foodie” books to the Home Ec program at her alma mater), upon one's demise it will either be descended on by assorted “vultures” (my Father's library was quickly picked clean by grad students) or be “disposed of” by various means. I frequently get into message-board jousts with assorted folks over on LibraryThing.com about the utility of having a “price” range in the data, as “replacement value” for a library is something that can be negotiated with insurance companies (itemized for any particularly valuable volumes), but has very little relation to “re-sale value”. I found, when dealing with my Mom's estate, that the folks who were quoting options for auctions, etc. pretty much ignored the books, or (at best) were willing to value them at something like a dime each, hardly what the book-lover imagines when gazing upon his or her assembled collection. Anyway, what happens frequently in downtown Chicago is that the shelves will be emptied into boxes and dropped off at Newberry (although I think Open Books is seeing a lot of this supply these days as well).

The reason for this long prologue here is that the current volume is not only reasonably old (from 1964), but has an “ex libris” bookplate up front. Now, for many years, I hated to get used books because I didn't want to have “dead people's stuff”, but (after a decade of extremely “reduced circumstances”) I eventually got used to the “used” channel being my primary book source, and I find it fascinating when I find “historical” stuff in the book. As I've noted here in these cases, I like to do some research on the names, just to know which dead person had this before me. In this case, the original owner was one Emil M. Lesza, who appears to have died in 1991 (B: 1913), however, my guess is that a Lawrence Lesza (his son?) had kept the book when Emil died, as he expired in 2010 (B: 1950) … which would be just the right time-frame for the book to have found its way to the Newberry Library for last year's book fair.

Anyway, the book in question is Wolfgang Cordan's (a pseudonym, I discovered) Secret of the Forest: On the Track of the Maya and Their Temples. Once more, a bit of background might help put this in context, Cordan (Heinrich Wolfgang Horn) was a German who fled the Nazis and fought with the resistance in Holland. After the war, he wandered around working as a photographer, translator, and assorted other roles, eventually settling in Mexico and working as an archaeologist/adventurer (with support from some private benefactors back in Europe). He appears to have published about 18 books, most about Mexico and Central America, but also the Middle East, and collections of poetry. He died on an expedition in Guatamala in 1966 at the age of 56. Secret of the Forest was published (in German) in 1959, with the English translation appearing in 1963.

The book is an interesting middle-ground between an out-right travelogue and a group of archaeological surveys. What's most interesting (for me, at least) here is Cordan's detailed descriptions of the conditions by which these expeditions were mounted. As the events of the book date from sixty or so years ago, the conditions for “archeological tourism” in Central America and the Yucatan were hardly what they are today (and even today, many of these ruins can not be conveniently accessed due to the extreme conditions of the areas they're in). As is predictable for a book from a less “politically correct” age, there are a lot of blanket assertions to the “types” of various groups, from the indios, the mestizos/ladinos, to the deep-jungle Lacandons … not so much based on any anthropological data as years of dealing with these people. However, these lend a certain color to the book, bringing scenes to life more than they might have been without.

Frankly, there is not much of an “arc” to the narrative, nor any particular point being made here. The author does make an effort to put the entire into context with the time-lines as understood then (although he does put forth material to substantively challenge some of the presently “orthodox” assumptions, including elements suggestive of the starting point of the Mayan calendar, which he figures to 3,373 bce, while not being historically specific, is “generally” pegged to the beginning of maize as a crop, and the establishment of settled agricultural communities in the region), as well as the peoples and cultures (and recent history) involved.

Most of the book is looking at his adventures as they unfolded, however, with details of places, individuals, challenges (especially in “expedition management” of the time), and conditions, as well as, of course, the ruins that they worked on. It seems that in the decades that Cordan was exploring the Mayan region, archaeology was turning the corner from “institutional tomb-robbing” to the science of study and preservation that it's evolved into. Cordan was definitely of the latter sort in spirit, but still of the former in the short term. He bewails what's become of the rare and fabulous artifacts he discovered (but had to leave in situ) that later appear plundered (and cut up) in various catalogs, yet he also gifts items to key people assisting him (as well as his European benefactors), and several times refers to a particularly excellent jade piece that his adopted son discovered that “would pay for his university”.

The translation here is quite good, as the text is virtually transparent except in a couple of places (citing verse) where the German original would have been useful to be preserved, or a particular technical word might have been better left standing. I don't know if any of his other books made it into English, and if they didn't, that's quite a shame, as Secret of the Forest is both enjoyable and informative, and his other titles sound interesting. It appears that all his books are out of print at this point, as Amazon only has used versions of this, and a handful of his other titles (in German) listed.

The good news is that you can find a copy of this if you're interested in checking it out, but you're going to have to do some digging. This was published before ISBNs were in place, so it's a matter of searching by name, and there are six entries on Amazon for this (strangely, none on BN.com), with “very good” copies available for four bucks or so (and one “like new” for fifty bucks). As noted, I'd love to see this back in print, and his other works translated, so if a look at “free-lance archaeology” from the 50's appeals to you, go grab those copies that are out there!


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