We read books to find out who we are. -Ursula K. Le Guin, author (21 Oct 1929-2018)
It’s not just the self-help books that work that way, either. It can be cookbooks. ( Will I enjoy preparing Korean food?) It can be science fiction, for a kid who feels like an alien wherever they’re growing up and going to school. It can be nonfiction about science, history, race relations, archaeology or anything else, when we want to understand who we are as a species or race or nation – or civilization.
In researching Four Lost Cities, science journalist and SF writer Annalee Newitz visited the archaeological sites of Çatalhöyük in Turkey, Pompeii in modern Italy, Angkor in Cambodia, and Cahokia near the Mississippi River to find out who what happens when a city ends. Pompeii is the one that was obliterated by nature. Rome promptly resettled many evacuees elsewhere. In the case of the other cities, people seem to have dispersed but continued to use the place as a graveyard for a long time (Çatalhöyük); lost interest in city life as climate changed and rulers made bad decisions, leaving contingents of monks to stick around tending the temples (Angkor) ; or upped and moved on (Cahokia.) This is a fascinating exploration of the life and death of cities – and the tenacity of human cultures – with more than a little relevance for our own day.