The Mummy Congress: Science, Obsession, and the Everlasting Dead.
Pringle, Heather. New York: Theia, 2002. 288 p., $13.95, softcover. ISBN: 0786884630.
The Mummy Congress opens like National Geographic and closes like Carl Sagan. Pringle's initial account of the 3rd tri-annual World Mummy Congress starts with adjective-laden descriptions of personalities, menus and attire that scene-build effectively, but lack an ease that leaves the first chapters somewhat short of engrossing. Nevertheless, the initial rigidity is forgiven and soon forgotten as the text does transform into a smoother, increasingly thoughtful, and surprisingly passionate tribute to the mummies, the experts that love them, and an intriguing scientific dialog between the two. It is in this aspect that The Mummy Congress succeeds as a popular science read.
The real beauty of science is often buried deep in the details, and this is what makes the stiff introduction to some extent forgivable. Like a National Geographic article, The Mummy Congress spares us the nonessentials out of respect for the lay reader. However, this kind of trimming produces a negative space that is too often filled with overly "neat" facts, or meaningful facts presented at face value in effort to preserve the flow. Pringle's favored decision is to present "neat" facts interconnected by flavorful scene and character descriptions. The unfortunate side effect is a reader left unsure whether greater knowledge does actually lie beneath. Pringle does not achieve a confident scientific voice. There is beauty in simplicity, yet this is especially so when simplicity hints at deeper secrets or complexity. The distance between books like The Mummy Congress and Broca's Brain is drawn by this quality.
I wasn't comfortable with Pringle's biographical sketches and the line "I am never entirely certain whether Arriaza realizes the effect he has on women." stuck with me far too long to do proper service within a popular science work. Although Pringle's most consistent source of praise as a writer, the character descriptions are more distracting than additive. However, when mummies get more time than the experts, there is fruit to be found, and Pringle does manage to keep you hungry for more.
Still, it isn't the character sketches, but the story's heavy lean upon interview that produces the most adverse effect. Pop scientists Sagan and Asimov wrote about a great many things they lacked professional expertise in, yet the facts always seemed to come straight from the horse's mouth. This is not to say that sources ought to be buried, but interview-derived facts lack are dull when presented without interpretation. The book's bibliography seems unnecessarily large.
To be fair, The Mummy Congress does succeed in several aspects. Unlike Sagan, it never bogs down giving unequal attention to seemingly equal details. Nor does Pringle reach too far into political activism or pure opinion. Like Sagan, Pringle wraps up in a present day reflection that comes across excited and heartfelt without being too cheesy. The topic alone is uncommonly refreshing and the photo inserts are mesmerizing. Pringle has a talent for discussing history, and this adds much to the quality of the work. In short, The Mummy Congress is book worthwhile for the armchair scientist, a profession always lacking in diversity of resources. Heather Pringle does a service putting together such an uncommon read and the world would benefit from more books like it.Mark Katakowski