WHAT’S ON YOUR BOOKSHELF
Reindert Falkenburg is an art historian who specializes in late medieval and Renaissance art, with a particular focus on Netherlands. His most recent book is the monograph, Hieronymus Bosch: The Land of Unlikeness (2012). Falkenburg presently serves as Vice Provost for Intellectual and Cultural Outreach at NYU Abu Dhabi. He spoke recently with Electra Street about recent books that have been important to him.
What is the earliest book that you remember reading?
I come from a Christian background, and my father was a Protestant minister, so the earliest book I remember reading is a children’s version of the Bible.
What was the last truly great book that you read?
Chris Stringer, who works at the Natural History Museum in London, is one of the key scholars in paleoanthropology. His book Lone Survivors (2012) describes the very complex emergence of humankind against or in the context of other humanoid species. That is the kind of book that I really love.
I would say I love popular scientific readings. When I was in high school I thought that I would be a scholar of paleoanthropology myself. We had a teacher who brought to class some prehistoric flint stone axes, and I was just so fascinated that from that moment on, I was convinced I would be a prehistorian or a paleoanthropologist. Due to all kinds of events, I eventually decided to do art history. But I never forgot my romantic fascination for the history of early mankind.
Another book I would like to mention is The Mind in the Cave (2004) by David Lewis-Williams. He has a very interesting idea about rock art and how it relates to the dream world of mankind some thirty thousand years ago. The book has a deep historical perspective. Not only does it go back in time to 30,000 years ago or so, but it also has deep implications for artworks across the world. Lewis-Smith comes up with a theory of the interrelationship between the physical environment, representations of animals, healing processes, the representation of the inner mind, and the human subconscious. Whether or not his theory is correct, he touches upon something very basic that defines the fundamental function of what we call art, and that is why it is great reading for students.
Photograph by Johanna Klein
How are books like these related to your own work?
Hieronymus Bosch, a Dutch painter who lived around 1500, painted very enigmatic work, many of which have a landscape setting. Last year, I published a book on one of these paintings. It is a triptych with hundreds of strange pictures. What I do when I work on interpreting these images is the way that I would do excavations in the real world. Digging into a painting, for me, is almost like digging into the earth. That’s how the two are connected. This digging is an interpretive digging, of course. But it also relates to the wondrous dream world of many of Bosch’s paintings.
As a writer, what can you say about how you view the reader?
For me, the reader is more important than the writer. When you write, you have different readers in mind. You yourself are a reader, you have people in mind who are your ideal readers, and there is often a shadow of people who you think are great readers or writers, and you are kind of afraid of them looking at your writing. You have higher intentions that your writings may inspire other people. So, you have different readers.
How do you feel that reading culture has evolved over the years?
Due to the availability of other media, our reading habits have greatly changed. Even in my own lifetime, I read differently now than I did, let’s say, forty years ago, before the Internet. I see in younger people that they have reading habits that differ a lot from mine. I have three children, and they go to college in Holland, and I see that their intellectual outlook is greatly influenced by what they read but what they read is not what we would necessarily call literature in the high sense of the word or what we would call scholarly literature in the deepest sense of the word. But their intellectual pursuit is perhaps more authentic, more variegated, more open than that of those who pride themselves on being deep rooted in scholarly or literary culture. So I have deep respect for the new reading habits of young people. I’m a bit jealous actually of the ability of younger people to acquire knowledge and to discuss. A large part of reading today is to discuss what you’ve read, isn’t it? It’s now far more interactive than it was before. I think that the reading habits of younger people are not getting worse; they are improving. But it comes at the cost, if you will, of not being localized in one particular section of culture. If that is a cost. Maybe it isn’t at all.
You’ve been living and working in the UAE for some time now. What book would you suggest that someone read before coming here?
Well, I have found Wilfred Thesiger’s Arabian Sands (1959) very inspiring. I discovered it when I was here, and now I give it to friends when they visit us, or I bring it home to the Netherlands to people who are thinking of visiting us. It’s marvelously written and very evocative. If you look at some of the empty spots even at the Corniche, sometimes you realize that this little piece of sand that I’m seeing in this little corner that’s forgotten is actually the original desert. Then, I realize that fifty years ago, everything was a desert. The book offers a marvelous counterpart to what this community has built here right now.
Falkenburg, Reindert. Hieronymus Bosch: The Land of Unlikeness (Zwolle, Netherlands: W Books, 2011).
Lewis-Williams, David. The Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art (London: Thames and Hudson, 2004).
Stringer, Chris. Lone Survivors: How We Came to Be the Only Humans on Earth (New York: Times Books, 2012).
Thesiger, Wilfred. Arabian Sands (1959: rpt. New York: Penguin 2008).