Book Review: A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities

A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities: Strange Tales and Surprising Facts from the Cradle of Western Civilization proclaims itself to be an “uproarious miscellany of odd stories and facts.” While it is indeed a miscellany of odd stories and facts, the collection is hardly entertaining for more than a couple of pages at a time. In truth, the information in this collection as it is presented has all the amusement of a Facebook meme: quirky and funny in one-shot doses, but boring and repetitive in excess.

Author J. C. McKeown does an admirable job of assembling this collection of random facts, quotes, and snippets that are presented across about two dozen very broad topics. It must have taken incredible effort to go through the countless references and resources to cull the most interesting bits. But herein is the problem: all he did was assemble them. There is no rhyme or reason in the presentation. McKeown offers a lengthy, overwritten preface in which he insists that the book is not meant for academic consumption and is only meant to entertain. I’m not sure if he is apologizing for the lack of focus or trying to justify it to himself. But the whole thing feels like cut-and-paste job.

All of the facts and quotes are simply listed in no particular order, perhaps representing the order in which he found them/decided to include them more than anything else. He rarely provides any context for the facts presented, so the reader has no way of knowing if a specific snippet was meant to be taken literally. There is an impression that McKeown expects us to believe that everything in the book was part of the actual Greek belief system, but anyone with even a modicum of knowledge of classical history will recognize some of the “facts” as snippets pulled from sources that were meant to be read figuratively.

The few times that he does attempt to offer some clarification or background, it comes across as heavy-handed and self-serving. For example, he opens the section on Women with an apology of sorts “Women had very little public life in Greek society and were appallingly undervalued. This chapter might almost better have been entitled ‘Misogyny’.” And then proceeds to present a bullet list of the most offensive quotes he could find about women (it is also one of the few places in the book where he actually uses bullet points, as if trying to draw attention to the fact that women should be offended). It comes across with about as much sincerity as someone saying “I don’t mean to offend” and then telling a deliberately offensive joke.

There are a variety of random quote and random fact generators on the internet. They can be amusing time wasters. Open the generator, click “refresh” once or twice to see a few quirky facts, and then go on about your day. But hit refresh a few dozen times and you get bored. That is ultimately what A Cabinet of Greek Curiosities is. Flip it open to a random page and read a handful of facts, and then put it away for another day. But trying to read it cover to cover feels like a tedious exercise that is neither entertaining nor particularly enlightening.

Reviewer Note: I was given an ARC from the publisher.