The Buried Book, by David Damrosch

The Buried Book: The Loss and Rediscovery of the Great Epic of Gilgamesh
by David Damrosch, narrated by William Hughes
This is an interesting study of the discovery of the tablets that comprise the most complete sections of the Epic of Gilgamesh. It starts with a discussion about the archaeologists involved in discovering the tablets – what trials they underwent while digging, politics behind their dig, and even quarrels between archaeologists. (Sounds like Wallis E Budge was a jerk despite his fame.) The most interesting story was that of George Smith. He came from a working class background, but he had a brilliant ability to learn languages so he moved up to a classier job as apprentice in a printing shop. He spent all of his free time in the British Library learning languages and looking at ancient documents. Eventually he was hired on, first as a volunteer, and then as a full-fledged member of the team to research ancient Babylonian tablets. He was the one to discover the flood story within The Epic of Gilgamesh and he got so excited that he ran around the library in a “state of undress.” (How much undressed he was remains a mystery. But I don’t imagine he ran naked through the library yelling Eureka! or anything. He probably took off his jacket and loosened his tie.)


The book then jumps back to the time of Ashurbanipal  (668-627 BCE), a historical king of Nineveh who collected rare literature from around the world (at least the world within reach of himself). It was inside this buried library, which was destroyed in the fall of Nineveh, that the most complete set of tablets for Gilgamesh was discovered. Buried Book tells of Ashurbanipal’s father, who was severely depressed and paranoid. He couldn’t read and was terrified that his assistants were hiding things from him when they read correspondences. Historians believe that this may be why Ashurbanipal was encouraged to learn to read at a young age. I found this section quite interesting and wished that there were more to it than there was. Though I suppose you can’t say THAT much about a historical figure about whom only fragments of records exist. 

The Buried Book then retreats farther into a short analysis of Gilgamesh with historical perspective. It discusses how the trip to tame Humbaba in the forest may have represented Gilgamesh’s famed war to retrieve wood in other parts of Persia. 

Finally, The Buried Book jumped back to how Gilgamesh has affected modern readers – including a longish section on Saddam Hussein. Apparently, Hussein could see Gilgamesh in himself and this impacted his philosophy on ruling. I was pretty interested to hear that Hussein had written a decent novel – I had no clue! Of course, chances are someone else wrote it from Hussein’s notes, but still. Very interesting. 

5 thoughts on “The Buried Book, by David Damrosch

  1. This sounds so interesting. I tend to really like books about books. Works like this that explore the origins and dig into the meanings of texts such as the Bible, Homer, etc. never cease to fascinate me.

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  2. This sounds awesome! I love learning about research and the people involved in it. Haha, I also appreciate the anecdote you shared about Smith and his state of undress. It made me smile 🙂

    Like

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