Nicholas (nwhyte) wrote,
Nicholas
nwhyte

Oak: The Frame of Civilization, by William Bryant Logan

Logan tries to show that the oak tree is Awfully Important to Western Civilisation, and indeed makes a reasonable case for the place of oak in various foundational texts and physical structures of our society. In particular, I liked the points made about the nutritional value of acorn flour (though it's odd that it isn't used more) and the oak structure of Westminster Hall and of early modern sailing ships. There were some odd slips (Burley for Burghley, Wainright for Wainwright) and the naval warfare theme got more than a little sidetracked when it came to the nineteenth century. It's a reasonable effort, though reflecting rather than communicating the author's obsession with the subject.

Of course, he completely omits those civilisations and culture for whom oak was not an option. I'm a little troubled by the nativist resonances of his equating Europe and the Middle East with pre-Columbian North and Central America, and the fact that this particular focus erases Africa and other places where oak doesn't grow. 

I would also have liked to know more about how oak fitted in with other types of wood in the ancient world. It's interesting that Ötzi the iceman carried many different types of wood crafted into tools - none of them oak, as far as I can tell from a quick scan of the websites. Logan's focus on oak, important as it was and is, rather obscures the rest of the forest. 
Tags: bookblog 2015
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