HarperCollins's Don't Know Much About series is the slightly more attractive younger sibling of Alpha Book's Idiot's Guide series. If Alpha's famous orange-and-white dressed reference books have spawned a whole new generation of readers whose quest for a maximum amount of facts are sated by prose any "idiot" could read, the Don't Know Much About series offers the same promise with a bit more elegance and charm. The text for DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY is provided by Kenneth C. Davis, a journalist and National Public Radio commentator whose encyclopedic knowledge of world history and culture enables him to construct prose that is as breezy as it is informative, as witty as it is delightful. He has an impressive ability to synthesize great quantities of texts and facts into a concise and coherent digest that, well, just about any idiot can read.
Organized into nine chapters that explore first the earliest civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia, then the later civilizations of Greece, Northern Europe, the Far East and the African continent, and finally the Americas, DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY follows the same sequence that countless mythology texts have used before. And like those texts, the bulk of Davis's book is comprised of well-written prose paraphrases of ancient literatures. In terms of form and function, it doesn't break any new ground; instead, it offers another alternative to speedy referencing.
Bracketing each chapter are lists that frame important events in a sequential time table called "Mythic Milestones." When read side by side, they constitute a concise timeline of world history. Of perhaps more pedagogical interest are a series of "key questions" that introduce each new section. While I personally found such canned questions inane, others might refer young readers to them as a way of guiding their experience with the material.
If there is little doubt of this book's usefulness --- you may want, for example, to spot-check a classical reference as you work your way through Pope's DUNCIAD --- I wonder about the sheer volume of books about mythology on the market these days. Whereas Davis's crystal-clear prose is proof of his years of reading primary texts in the field, the average reader of his text may never go any further than here. Naturally, Davis is aware of the importance of the original sources in the myths he retells. This is why so many of his summaries are accompanied by brief passages from primary source material. This, however, is not enough, nor is it the concern of the Don't Know Much About series.
As a teacher of comparative mythology at the college level, I am aware that students would benefit from reading Davis's summaries as a prelude to reading the original epics, hymns, chants, prayers, and folktales from which such stories come. But how many are reading about the myths beyond this point? How many, for example, have accessed a respectable verse translation of THE ILIAD in order to capture the pitch, as well as the plot, of Homer's epic tale?
If Davis's DON'T KNOW MUCH ABOUT MYTHOLOGY fails to correct a growing trend towards summary and paraphrase, at least it does what countless other texts do well: it offers a starting point for further research and a lifelong love affair with the great mythic literatures of the world. The question is, how many are game?
Reviewed by Tony Leuzzi on November 1, 2005