I don't actually feel qualified to review this book, but it's hard to resist "no customer reviews, be the first", especially when the book's been out for a while and hasn't been reviewed; it would be a shame for this book not to be reviewed. I think I see why no one has yet; it's not easy, you have to pick your battle.
I'm reading it for the second time, and frankly, I didn't really get it the first time. I mean, I UNDERSTOOD it; I wasn't baffled by it or anything, but I just didn't get how great it is, I wasn't as moved by it as this time.
"The Tree of Meaning: Language, Mind and Ecology"-- what the heck does all that mean? Well, I can't explain it, or certainly not in this short space, but I can say that after reading the book (well, one and a half times), I get the title; I see the relationships there, and that's what the book is about. Once you get the title, you don't need the book any more (but you can still enjoy it).
I can't quite make out what Bringhurst does; like the book, he doesn't fit any categories. He's a poet; I don't know if he's an anthropologist or linguist or not, but he seems to know a lot about those fields; and he's an expert on typesetting. The book is a collection of talks he's given, and one of the themes of the book is how various artistic modalities (painting, carving, written literature, oral literature) fulfill the same function (and by the way, I'm choosing my words very carefully, but still not satisfied; you just need to read the book, maybe twice, and if I get that across I've succeeded)-- and how each such modality has its own integrity. The book has its own integrity too, even though it's a diverse collection of originally spoken pieces. You have to read several of these diverse pieces before you start to get the common theme-- which I can't summarize.
Here's a quote, and I won't attempt to set it up; I just want to give this quote because it's beautiful, and exemplary. Speaking of how in the twentieth century, many great, previously unknown North American literary traditions were written down even as their languages and cultures disappeared, he says "The museum full of stuffed and mounted stories is now huge, but the forest where languages nest and literatures breed has been mercilessly cut".
He talks about how some European paintings, and some Haida carved plates, convey myths. One I really didn't get before is about a Velasquez painting where there's a realistic painting, almost a still life, of a kitchen maid in her kitchen, with a minimalist drawing of the risen Christ dining with friends at Emmaus, stuck off in a corner, looks like a mistake, and actually it was painted over for hundreds of years; but when you get it, that drawing illuminates the world of the other painting. I'm clear that that's what Velasquez intended too, not just Bringhurst's sophisticated idea. It's about the myth in the drawing stuck off in the corner, and how it illuminates the prosaic world of the rest of the painting. Similar disquistions on other Renaissance paintings, Native American carvings, written and oral literature, and how they all convey myth, gave me a sense-- not just an idea-- of how those disparate artforms are indeed all the same thing.
I hope that's enough to get your interest.