THE INTERPRETATION OF CULTURES by Clifford Geertz
Hadley, Tessa, The Independent (London, England)
book of a lifetime
If you mapped out a novelist's history in books, beloved and influential fictions would have to loom large in the foreground. But books of ideas can be significant in a novelist's formation too - history or science or philosophy or whatever, depending on taste and training and accidental encounter. From those books we derive the framework of our beliefs, the underpinning convictions thatform our mindset and play through and around the witnessing, empathetic, dreaming parts of our perception. And these shaping beliefs will always be at work in the stories we write, however obliquely, or at whatever level of conscious or unconscious deployment.
I love reading anthropology books. I suppose they seem to mirror the work that novels do, describing and analysing the precious minutiae of human interaction in particular worlds. Reading about cock-fighting in Bali sharpens how well we see our own patterns of relationship, our own social ritual; it draws the mind's camera back into a long shot, before plunging again into the thick of the detail. In anthropology, as in novels, everything matters - the colour of a hat, the onset of the first menses, the name of the child, the rituals of social visiting.The anthropologist and the novelist ask the same questions: What are they doing? Why do they think they are doing it? What does it mean?
Clifford Geertz's 'The Interpretation of Cultures' has been an important book for me, helping to shape the way I understand the world. I relish his lucidly authoritative explanations of religion and ideology as cultural systems. …