Pros: Packed with facts, proposes a solid theory. Clarifies difficult concepts, such as the Mayan calendar.
Cons: Most Maya enthusiasts won't need a book with such a specific focus.
This summer, I got the opportunity to stand at the foot of one of the most amazing structures ever crafted by human hands. The building in question was El Castillo, the gigantic pyramid at Chichen Itza, arguably the most important Mayan site on the entire Yucatan Peninsula, and while I wouldn't ever attempt to downplay the grandeur of the other attractions there (the ball court, the famous observatory, the Temple of the Warriors), I left there wondering what in the name of Yosemite Sam would ever motivate people to build such a magnificent structure in such a miserable place. I probably sweated out half my body weight and nourished at least sixty-five different varieties of insect that day.
At any rate, my journey to Chichen Itza generated an intense fascination with the Maya that has raged for almost two months and shows no signs of abating. I've blown hundreds of dollars on reproduction friezes and cleared the shelves of at least two local bookstores in my effort to become knowledgeable about this amazing civilization. I already knew a fair amount about ancient Mesoamerica from having taught AP World History and read about the Aztecs, but the Maya were something of a blind spot in my inventory of historical facts.
Discounting a general history of pre-Columbian civilizations written in the 1920's, the first book I tackled on the subject was Arthur Demarest's Ancient Maya: The Rise and Fall of a Rainforest Civilization. It seemed as good a place to start my research as any, though in retrospect, I probably should've started off with something a little more elementary, such as Coe's The Maya.
Ancient Maya is an excellent book, but it's hardly an ideal introductory volume to the subject. Demarest's writing is very academic in style, and does very little to bring the Maya to life. It does cover such sensationalistic topics as Mayan religion, the calendar (though I recall no mention of 2012 whatsoever, thankfully), and blood rituals, but doesn't play them up in quite the way that other books have. In other words, don't come here looking for highly detailed accounts of such gruesome Mayan practices as beheading, genital mutilation, or running thorny vines through one's tongue.
What is unique about Ancient Maya is that Demarest explores an area that seems to get relatively scant attention: the role that the jungle played in shaping Mayan civilization. The title of the book says it all, and Demarest returns time and again to the ecological emphasis in the development of Mayan civilization. Having been to the humid and uncomfortable territory that the Maya occupied (and Chichen Itza isn't even half as harsh as the older sites to the south in Guatemala and the Chiapas region of Mexico), I can't even imagine a book that doesn't seriously consider the environment with which this amazing group of people had to contend.
In addition to the focus on human-environment interaction (Demarest basically posits that the Maya thrived in the rainforest by diversifying their crops and successfully integrating themselves into the jungle, as opposed to trying to conquer it, as modern Mexicans seem intent on doing), the author does an outstanding job of explaining the ever complicated Mayan calendar (which basically consisted of three separate cycles moving together), their daunting glyph-based writing system (by far one of the most bizarre-looking scripts ever), and reasonable factors that might have caused their civilization to decline (in other words, nothing alien and/or Atlantis-related). The dry writing style is moderated to some degree by a fair number of photos and hand-drawn reproductions of the always intriguing artistic output of this incredible people.
If you've already moved beyond a handful of beginner's books about the Maya and are looking for something a little more scholarly, check out Ancient Maya. It isn't the quickest moving item on the shelves, but after having read it, I felt exponentially more qualified to call myself a serious student of all things Mayan. This is a worthy purchase for anyone who'd rather think of the Maya as precocious and intellectually accomplished masters of their environment instead of ancient doomsayers unfairly hyped by American commercial interests.