Saturday, March 5, 2016

Off the Shelf: Ancestors and Relatives

"Expand your horizons," I told myself. "Read a new book every month."

It seemed a good idea at the time. I was taking transcontinental trips affording me ample time to lounge around and read. I liked the mental wake-up call to actually think, instead of the mindless fare generally found on other media.

Besides, I have more partially-read books on my bookshelves than I care to recall. I need to do something about that.

I decided this month was it: the month to stop pulling books off the shelf that I hadn't even started to read, and instead select something that I had started...but then laid aside. Finish what you start is a useful mantra; I just needed to expand my horizons and apply that advice to my books.

So I chose a volume with a bookmark firmly ensconced in the very first chapter—embarrassingly, on page five. How's that for progress? Not to worry, though: the entire volume boasts a mere one hundred thirty one pages of text. (It's the other forty nine pages of end notes plus the additional twenty nine pages of bibliography that should have been my warning.)

But the decision had already been made: March's selection for my book of the month was to be Eviatar Zerubavel's Ancestors and Relatives. While the subtitle seems relatively harmless—Genealogy, Identity and Community—it is page counts like those mentioned above plus the fact that it was all written by a professor of sociology at Rutgers that should have tipped me off. This slim volume packs considerable mental effort.

The blurb on the cover promised a book that would take a multi-faceted look at aspects of genealogical pursuit. However, as the author noted, genealogy is not simply genealogy per se, but an artifact of the
social traditions of remembering and classifying [that] shape the way we trace our ancestors, identify our relatives, and delineate families, ethnic groups, nations, and species.

Perhaps, given my current mental state—I'm more likely now to want to run off, chasing Bright Shiny Objects, than ensconce myself in a straight-backed chair and mull over any mind-twisting notions—this might have been an unfortunate choice of reading material. Still, I've always wanted to read this book, and I know if I don't do it now, I likely will never do so.

The book, published in 2012, promised "a fresh understanding of relatedness," and I am always interested in how others see the genealogy we are constantly pursuing. If we wish to see ourselves as others see us, I suppose this would be an apt application of that advice. The book certainly promises to point out some blind spots—perceptions, attitudes, choices of either inclusion or exclusion—regarding the culture of pursuing genealogy.

If nothing else, we need to be aware of these pitfalls of the practice of genealogical pursuit. Better yet would be to equip ourselves to address them. Optimal would be to find our place ahead of the curve and deal with the objections in a proactive manner.


  1. I admire you for picking it up again. Of course different people read for different reasons...I read to escape:)

  2. The cover looks neat.. a banyan tree?

    1. Not entirely sure, Iggy...the credits don't mention any details of the cover design, unfortunately. I've seen some photos of banyan trees that seem to match up.

      The tree certainly does sport some impressive roots, though, doesn't it?


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