THis is an odd and remarkable book, a tour of history that mixes art criticism, economic analysis, and even gastronomy. It moves between so many subjects - from a German artist parodying Hitler's siegheil to empty fields, Hasidim logging in the woods of Poland dressed in their customary suits, to the Baroque fountains in French parks - that it is impossible to summarise his message, except to say that we Westerners have a changing relationship with forest, rock, and water.
I was dazzled by Schama's erudition and mastery of language, as he moved from making connections between Egyptian mythology and the fountains of Rome, or the myth of Robin Hood and rustic Englsh eccentrics of the 19C. This is a book that enhances one's experience, particularly if you live in EUrope and every day walk by the things that he describes. For example, I read it while we were living on the edge of Fontainebleau forest, in France, and inside the back cover of the book, I found a map of the forest that included our village of 600! To my astonishment, I then went on to read that Fontainebleau was apparently the first forest to have marked paths for hikers who visit from industrial cities, a method pioneered by a somewhat loopy bonapartist who had retired to the area, and whom the local authorities watched with suspicion in mid 19C. For anyone who loves hiking or sitting outside, you will find sections like that that speak to you, that are illuminating in a quirky personal way.
However, while these passages are wonderful and fun, for me they did not add up to much of anything beyond anecdotes. I enjoyed the facts, as a kind of entertainment that passed by as I read on, but they failed to coalesce into any deeper insights. In that sense, the book came up short for me, though many of the tidbits were indeed delicious. Rather than traditional history, this book is a huge and sprawling essay, like on of those old-style New Yorker articles that went on and on and on, until the point seems lost in detail.