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New Leaf June 2019 Discussion • The Riddle of the Labyrinth by Margalit Fox
#31  Bookpossum 06-17-2019, 08:15 PM
Quote Dazrin
I was looking up part of this and ran across this paper from 2011:


That is very similar to and uses the exact same examples as Fox's passage. But this isn't the author that Fox says the quotes come from (J. L. García Ramón) although this author does also cite Ramón for some other things on this page, just not this passage. I don't have the book any longer so I can't go double check context, I only have the highlight I made still available.

I am not used to academic papers but it seems like they should try to find at least a couple different examples. Otherwise, how are we supposed to believe the examples are trends and not just a few odd-ball cases of this happening? I understand leaving in "devourer of excrements" and "having the bottom bare", those are too good to pass up, but give us something else for the other examples.

(Note: I added the rest of the passage that I had highlighted to my original quote here instead of the abbreviated passage I have in the original post.)
Nice find Dazrin. That article or chapter is by Garcia Ramon, so it could well be what Fox was quoting from.
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#32  Victoria 06-17-2019, 08:27 PM
Quote Bookpossum
I absolutely agree with you Victoria and with Dazrin about all those “ifs”. I think Fox has gone overboard on the lack of appreciation of Kober’s work, and downplayed that of Ventris.

He was appreciative of her work as described in her articles, and wanted to work in collaboration with her. It seemed to me that she had an academic snootiness about Ventris because he was approaching the problem from a different angle in thinking the language might be Etruscan. In other words, she was the sort of person who thought there was only one way to solve the problem, which was her way.
I think so too. I’m sure it was vexing to receive letters about everyone’s pet theories when she was being so methodical and disciplined. But she was very dismissive of his proposal to consolidate strategies from leading researchers, though the lack of information had hindered her work, and she and Daniel had had very similar plan. Ventris wasn’t an academic, so not worth the time.

Quote Dazrin
This is a point in history (there are many) where I am lacking my own knowledge. I am trying to piece it together as I go.



I remember the book saying that Homer's works were oral and that the Greeks didn't have a written language for several hundred years after the Linear B tablets were created but I thought that was all based on knowledge and understanding from before Linear B was translated. Did knowing that Linear B is "ancient" Greek to the Ancient Greeks change any of those presumptions?

If Linear B is just a time capsule and doesn't have a waterfall effect on how Greece itself or the surrounding countries developed then it is a little less interesting to me. Still a great story and a great learning opportunity but much less meaningful to the world as we know it now if Linear B completely died out before having an opportunity to transform or be incorporated into another language that did make it and did have more influence in today's world.
This is the type of information I was hoping for too. What does the discovery tell us about the Greeks at this point in history? What assumptions has it changed? How are researchers using the material today? What did it illuminate about late bronze age Europe? That’s the interesting part for me, and I would have enjoyed more information along these lines.

Quote Bookworm_Girl
One of the items that I found curious is what motivated Fox to write this book and focus so much attention on Alice. I was surprised to learn that she is well-known as an obituary writer for the New York Times. In addition to a master’s degree in journalism, she also earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in linguistics from Stony Brook University. With this background, I can understand how she combined her skills and passion in multiple interests and felt compelled to write this book.

I found this article in the New York Times where she has written a modern obit of Kober. Much of it is repetitive to the book. It’s a good refresher if you have already returned the book to the library like me. However I thought the concluding paragraphs were interesting.

https://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/12/sunday-review/alice-e-kober-43-lost-to-history-no-more.html
Thanks for the link! It does add an interesting light on what motivated Fox personally.
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#33  issybird 06-18-2019, 09:53 AM
Quote gmw
On a technical level, my Kobo makes the symbol font and images far too small to be useful on the e-reader screen ... but since I'm not actually trying to solve the puzzle I'm just ignoring that problem, and taking a look at the symbols occasionally on my computer screen.
I think it would have bothered me more if the symbols had resembled anything I know. Cracking a code in English, to give the obvious example, I'd want to see the letters as that would aid in my understanding. But the symbols in Linear B were only ever going to be so much gobbledygook to me, so it didn't matter. I wonder how long it would take the average person to get to the point where the Linear B symbols were as ingrained and understandable as ABC?

Quote Dazrin
Is anyone else surprised to find that we don't know what killed Alice Kober? We knew she died early but what happened was never stated early, it became distracting to me as her illness went on that we didn't know what it was. I really wish that "we don't know" was stated early on rather than leaving it open and letting us wonder. I kept expecting an answer only to find that there isn't one.
With all the references to Kober's smoking and the cigarette boxes, I was confident Fox was foreshadowing and not at all subtly that she died from lung cancer. And then, not only do we not know, it seemed to me that the first manifestation of her illness was cognitive difficulties, so I wondered if it were related to smoking at all. Could have been - a metastatic tumor in her brain, say - but that's not at all conclusive. So I wish Fox had foregone the heavy-handed references; it would have been just as effective and not nearly so clunky to say that no cause of death was given, but Kober was a heavy smoker. I have to assume, given the times, so were a lot of the other people involved.

Quote Bookworm_Girl
Me too. Somewhere before I read the book I saw it compared to Simon Winchester and Dava Sobel which set my expectations higher, but I don’t think it was quite up to their level.
I think the biggest problem with this is that Fox was constrained by the paucity of material. New resources not previously used, yay! But not enough to make a full treatment from, so boo! I agree with everyone upthread that she was far too much of a Kober apologist. It would have been better if she had let Kober's reputation stand on what she did do, not on what she might have done.

That said, I think she did as good a job as possible in making difficult concepts accessible, understandable and interesting. And what a relief to read a current popular history book that does not create conversations, sidelong glances, gestures and so forth. They seem to be thin on the ground these days.
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#34  astrangerhere 06-18-2019, 11:26 AM
I am just spying on this discussion as I was too busy at work to get to this, but I thought I would pop in by way of contrast. Last year, I read Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer, also by Fox.

I enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps the narrative was made better by the sheer amount of first-person sources available to Fox in writing it. She quotes newspapers, diaries, and letters on virtually every page.

I also wonder if the aforementioned book was also the beneficiary of 5 years more experience as a writer at the New York Times (and perhaps better editing).
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#35  Victoria 06-18-2019, 03:26 PM
Quote Bookworm_Girl
Recently I read an essay about the importance of not skipping over the acknowledgments section in books because there can often be more insightful details besides thank yous to a bunch of people that you don’t know. My point of that statement is that I’m glad I read the acknowledgments of this book. And, since many listen to audiobooks, they might not have noted the website link for the archives of Program in Aegean Scripts and Prehistory at the University of Texas. I was completely entertained hunting around on this website. You can see the archives and read direct correspondence. You can also learn about other researchers who have archives there. Here are the links.
http://sites.utexas.edu/scripts/
http://sites.utexas.edu/scripts/about-pasp/pasp-archives-and-finding-aids/
Very true Bookworm_Girl And thanks for the links - they’re a great find!

Quote issybird
That said, I think she did as good a job as possible in making difficult concepts accessible, understandable and interesting.
I think so too issybird. I thought Fox also did an excellent job of portraying what a labour of love the decipherment was for each of them. To maintain that level of commitment for decades with so little progress to encourage them was amazing. Let alone the fortitude and powers of concentration they had to muster to tackle the scripts in the midst war and crushing workloads - truly remarkable.

Quote astrangerhere
I am just spying on this discussion as I was too busy at work to get to this, but I thought I would pop in by way of contrast. Last year, I read Conan Doyle for the Defense: The True Story of a Sensational British Murder, a Quest for Justice, and the World's Most Famous Detective Writer, also by Fox.

I enjoyed it immensely. Perhaps the narrative was made better by the sheer amount of first-person sources available to Fox in writing it. She quotes newspapers, diaries, and letters on virtually every page.

I also wonder if the aforementioned book was also the beneficiary of 5 years more experience as a writer at the New York Times (and perhaps better editing).
astrangerhere - excellent points. And thank you for highlighting this book. It had been mentioned earlier, but I didn’t make the connection that Fox was the author. It sounds like fun, so great to hear how enjoyable you found it.
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#36  fantasyfan 06-18-2019, 06:17 PM
Victoria wrote:

"I think so too issybird. I thought Fox also did an excellent job of portraying what a labour of love the decipherment was for each of them. To maintain that level of commitment for decades with so little progress to encourage them was amazing. Let alone the fortitude and powers of concentration they had to muster to tackle the scripts in the midst war and crushing workloads - truly remarkable."

I think that is very much the case. Though I really do think that Kober was far and away the most important link in the eventual decipherment--which is not to minimise the great intuitive leap of Ventris.

Evans found the tablet but contributed little to the actual decipherment and released only a few. Others actually impeded the work by either not allowing Kober to see crucial tablets or loading her with what was a time-wasting secretarial task. Despite her brilliance, Kober was only an Assistant Professor and given Associate status only when she was dying. Further, she was refused the University of Pennsylvania position almost certainly because she was a particularly brilliant woman. I cannot but feel great sympathy for her.

One thing that surprised me was that the book seemed to make much of the mystery concerning the destruction of Knossos. I thought it was reasonably accepted that the Minoan Civilisation was destroyed by the massive Santorini eruption.

https://www.sciencealert.com/tree-ring-radiocarbon-dating-minoan-volcano-catastrophic-eruption-thera

and

https://www.volcanodiscovery.com/santorini/minoan-eruption/size.html
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#37  Bookpossum 06-18-2019, 09:05 PM
Thanks for these interesting articles, fantasyfan.

I agree - I had thought there was no question about the cause of the destruction of Knossos.
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#38  gmw 06-18-2019, 11:33 PM
Evans, for me, seems fairly clear and typical of his kind and time; he showed considerable dedication to his interests, but did not seem obsessed by them. But the other two...

I am a little conflicted over how I see Kober and Ventris. I think there is no question but that they both far overstepped the bounds of dedication into the yawning depths of obsession. Perhaps this problem called for that, but it's not healthy and it's not a guarantee of useful results.

Kober is presented to us in this book as a dedicated worker without that spark of intuition demonstrated by Ventris, but note that much of the time Kober was working with just 700 words. A statistical analysis of 700 words* written in a small alphabet would be pushing the bounds, but when written in a syllabary this tiny sample can give no more than hints. Kober took those hints and made a number of intuitive leaps that were proven correct - compared to Ventris who made many such leaps, most of them wrong ... until he was right.

Until the additional tablets (both from Knossos and Pylos) were made available, most people knew they did not have enough information for a reliable solution. Kober and Ventris knew this too, but rather than get on with life while waiting for the extra information, they continued to push and prod, hoping for revelation; for Ventris that seems part of his nature, for Kober this seems directly opposed to her professed believe in scientific method - making her dismissal of others' guesswork a bit unfair; Ventris had worked hard at his guesses, just as she had.


* Quote from chapter 4: "For every word on the tablets—the two hundred published inscriptions gave decipherers about seven hundred different words to work with—she cut a separate card."
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#39  issybird 06-19-2019, 08:39 AM
Kober was her own worst enemy. Even given the constraints of her time and that she was a woman and Jewish, she didn't seem to be able to free herself mentally from the constraints of the city university system after having graduated from Hunter where she worked during grad school and her life-long employment at Brooklyn. For all she espoused sharing, her publication of only three articles was problematic. I understand that Brooklyn didn't reward that (and I have no issue with the colleges of the city of New York that they saw their mission as teaching), but I have to think the lack of a paper trail hurt Kober when she was competing for the job at Penn (even though it was a longshot).

Unfortunately, she seemed rather to despise her students; you'd think they might have been a fantastic resource for the grunt work of her efforts. But she preferred to be secretive, hunched over her dining table every night, even as she deplored the lack of time. Yes, she was a perfectionist, but that wasn't realistic especially given the limited sample she had.
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#40  gmw 06-19-2019, 11:24 AM
So I finished.

Fox's idea that Ventris "fled" from Myres and Kober ("a pattern of abdication he would repeat throughout his life"), because he felt cowed by the academics seemed to me to be - at best - an inappropriate assumption. And after reading of the later circumstances, close to his death, I get the strong impression Ventris suffered from major depressive episodes.

As others have observed, Fox goes too far in trying to champion Kober and belittle Ventris. Actually, I also think she goes to far in trying to champion Ventris, exaggerating how unique these two were. That they were both geniuses is not in doubt, nor is their obsessive natures. But very smart, obsessive problem solvers are not that rare, and once the volume of tablets was published, it seems pretty certain to me that someone would have been along in fairly short order to solve the riddle*. The advantage that Ventris (and Kober had she lived longer) had over others was the head start offered by their decades long obsession.

I think, now that I've finished the book and seen how Ventris did it, that Kober probably would have solved the problem, given time. We learn later in the book (Ch11) that despite criticising others for experimenting with associating sounds with symbols, Kober wasn't beyond doing that herself (had tried with Cypriot). This, it seems, turned out to be part of how Ventris began his conversion to thinking Greek might be the base.

As may be expected from the above, I found the concluding chapter of the book to be especially annoying and disappointing. However my opinion was somewhat raised by the epilogue and its discussion of how much worth there is in the plain facts of how a society lived. So I'd agree with others, a rating of around 3 to 3.5. Happy to have read it, but think it could have been better.


* The problem, while there were only 200 tablets, 700 words, available was especially hard, potentially impossible to get all the way out. But the problem with thousands of tablets, and knowing now that it had links to a known language (which need not have been the case, observe that Linear A is still unsolved), is quite a different proposition.
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