Sunday, March 31, 2013

Review: John Dee, The World of an Elizabethan Magus by Peter French

Title: John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus
Author: Peter French
Genre: History / Biographies
Publisher: Dorset Press
Published: 1972
Pages: 243

Rating: 6 out of 10

John Dee: The World of an Elizabethan Magus" lays out the Renaissance era of a time when religion was science, when mathematics were mysticism, and when scholars were magicians. If that doesn't sound interesting enough, it's all related to the life of John Dee, a true Renaissance man who mastered theology, science, astronomy, cartography, linguistics, alchemy, mathematics and much more. While today we may have generalized all of these specialties and called him a sort of multifaceted scientist, in the Elizabethan era, he was classified as a magician.

This book is quite a heady read, even though it isn't necessarily that long at 243 pages (and that's only including the extensive bibliography). French doesn't bother with adding in exciting stories (though, he makes it clear that Dee had plenty) or stylized wording. If you like your non-fiction to "read like fiction," this book isn't for you. French doesn't even approach Dee's life from the traditional starting point of his birth and upbringing. In fact, Dee's childhood and youth are not touched on in this book. The time frame jumps around rather than give you a straight year by year description of the subject's life.

The book isn't simply a biography of one man, it is rather a history book about a movement that one man dramatically influenced. Chapters focus on things such as Hermeticism and theology rather than Dee's college days or such things.

The style that this book was written in was distancing and dry, but I was nevertheless interested because of the subject. I'm not sure if all readers would feel the same, however.
Actual Renaissance and medieval works are directly quoted from quite often, still in a sort of Middle English that takes a bit of deciphering and may be, at times, nearly illegible to those not familiar with it. A passable knowledge of Elizabethan figures such as Walsingham will also make getting through this book much easier.

I loved the chapter about Dee's library, even though I found it to be one of the worst written in the book. It was sprawling and dis-organized, and went on to basically give a list of authors, followed by a few paragraphs. It was one of the worst descriptions that I have ever read of a library, especially considering that it was Dee's library - he was known for his possession of one of the greatest book and manuscript collections of all time! I was disappointed by the droning, unfocused (and most of all, disenchanted) relating of this chapter, but again, the subject was of such interest to me that I kept reading eagerly. I have to say that it was more in spite of the writing style than because of it, though.

Something else that I noticed in this book was that the author mentions and references Yates, a previous biographer of Dee, fairly often. At times, he will tell us Yates' opinion and then his (which was, most of the time, pretty much the same). At other times, he mentions Yates for no apparent reason. I haven't read all that many biographies, as I only recently started sliding more toward non-fiction than fiction, so maybe this is a thing that biographers do - acknowledge other biographers of the same person. It just seemed clumsy to me here, though.

In short, I wouldn't say this is exactly a book about John Dee. I wouldn't say it's exactly a biography, or exactly history, but rather a mixture of the two. I would not say that this is a well written book. I definitely wouldn't call it a riveting one. But it was interesting, and provided a wide scope on the world of Elizabethan scholars.