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BOOK REVIEW

A research-heavy yet light account of Garden of Eden seekers

By Laura Collins-Hughes
August 8, 2011

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In the beginning, Brook Wilensky-Lanford was confronted with a piece of family lore that she couldn’t wrap her mind around.

“When I first heard the rumor that my great-uncle - WASP, professor, New York City allergist - had been searching for the literal Garden of Eden in the 1950s,’’ she writes in “Paradise Lust,’’ her new social history, “the cognitive dissonance was immediate.’’

The notion that a 20th-century man of science would have believed there was an earthly Eden, a paradise where Adam and Eve had lived until they were exiled for their sins, was unfathomable. To Wilensky-Lanford, who has degrees in religious studies from Wesleyan University and nonfiction writing from Columbia University, there’s no question that the Bible’s book of Genesis is literature, not history. How, she wondered, could an educated person have been so naive?

Her uncle’s quest seems not to have made it past the dreaming stage; he never actually did fly off in search of the garden. But plenty of others have developed detailed theories about the location and nature of a literal Eden - enough of them to fill “Paradise Lust,’’ Wilensky-Lanford’s first book.

Exhibit A: William Fairfield Warren, Boston University’s first president and a Methodist minister who in 1885 published a book called “Paradise Found! The Cradle of the Human Race at the North Pole.’’ In this Arctic Eden, he argued, “men of gigantic stature’’ had enjoyed “almost millenarian longevity.’’

Peculiar, yes, but is it any more eyebrow-raising than Hong Kong businessman Tse Tsan Tai’s assertion, in 1914, that Eden was in the Mongolian desert? Or preacher Edmund Landon West’s espousal, a few years earlier, that a serpent-shaped mound in Ohio marked the spot? Or Christopher Columbus’s conviction that, in Wilensky-Lanford’s words, the planet “was shaped exactly like a giant breast, and the Garden of Eden would be the nipple’’? (In fairness, she adds, Columbus came up with that idea while “suffering, most likely, from syphilis-induced madness.’’)

“Paradise Lust’’ has something of a “This American Life’’ vibe, and it owes more than a little to the quirky popular histories of Sarah Vowell, who came to prominence on that public radio show. Wilensky-Lanford is unmistakably a research geek, but she follows those models in camouflaging her eggheadedness with humor.

“In the beginning,’’ she writes, using the phrase that starts almost all of her chapters, “Adam didn’t know what to do with himself in Eden. He just sat there all day - idle, naked, unemployed - under a Florida grapefruit tree.’’

But the reader may leave the pages of “Paradise Lust’’ knowing more about, say, early 20th-century irrigation projects in the Middle East than is strictly necessary - a hazard of the author’s fascination with British civil engineer William Willcocks, who posited that Eden was in Mesopotamia. She could have done a better job winnowing the contents of her notebooks.

Examining the lives of individual Eden seekers, glancing at global politics and the American culture wars, “Paradise Lust’’ is ambitious in scope without quite knowing what it wants to accomplish. Its tone varies widely, too, and the author never does seem to grasp how an intelligent person could interpret the Bible literally. Indeed, her writing is at its best when she finally comes across a credible archeological explanation for the Judeo-Christian creation story.

At the start of the book, describing her befuddlement at her uncle’s Eden interest, Wilensky-Lanford casts herself as a kind of secular seeker. The disappointment of her narrative is that the quest she undertook has led only to knowledge, not to understanding.

Laura Collins-Hughes is a member of the Globe staff and can be reached at lcollins-hughes@globe.com.

PARADISE LUST: Searching for the Garden of Eden By Brook Wilensky-Lanford

Grove, 304 pp., $25