21 December 2007

Interesting artwork and factoids, but overall a big "who cares?"

The Secret Symbols of the Dollar Bill : A Closer Look at the Hidden Magic and Meaning of the Money You Use Every Day
David Ovason
Perennial Currents, 2004

"Fascinating." "Extraordinary." "Dazzling." Breathless adjectives like this, taken directly from the blurb on the back cover, echo the tone of the book itself. While purporting to reveal "the fascinating secret meanings behind the design of the money we use every day," this book instead merely presents a series of more-or-less unconnected factoids about the various images found on the US $1 bill. Having previously read Ovason's The Zelator on the recommendation of a friend, I recognize this rambling and disconnected manner of presentation as something characteristic of the author's ouvre and not merely something particular to this specific book. Sadly, Ovason's writing style wrings all the power and magic out of a fascinating premise and replaces it with a sullen "so what?" I also found annoying Ovason's habit of passing off unsubstantiated assertions as fact, something that he does on a regular basis.

A page-by-page analysis of the book is inappropriate for a book review, but one choice example should suffice to support my criticisms. On page 5 (in his irrelevant factoid on how the word "dollar" originally came from Germany, irrelevant because he fails to connect it with any subsequent factoid) Ovason makes the claim that only those who knew that the dollar sign had been derived from a crucifix (one of the many points he assumes rather than proves) would get the "half-joke" from Sinclair Lewis' Main Street that the dollar sign "chased the crucifix clean off the map." Really? I would have thought that was a pretty transparent reference to the fact that the "almighty dollar" had supplanted the Christian God in the hearts of America's faithful, a rather mundane theme which is in keeping with the rest of Sinclair Lewis' writing. Far too often, a section heading that includes wiggle words like "may," "possible," "might" is followed by a paragraph from which these qualifiers are absent. One need read only a few pages into the book to see that Ovason's tendency to confuse assertion with fact is clearly evident.

A good book on the symbolism of the dollar bill would definitely be an interesting read for those interested in American history, Freemasonry, and symbolism in general. Sadly this isn't that book.

(This review was originally posted on October 3, 2007.)

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