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Tuesday, April 16

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22 Books starts to wind up today in this, its penultimate installation. We're down to the final two areas of the world to cover, Europe and Southeast Asia.


Ah, Europe: what would undergraduates hungry to learn about art and architecture do over summer vacation if it wasn't for Europe? The problem with writing a history of Europe is where to stop. Once you move out of Catholic territory and into Orthodox Land you're more or less operating in the rain shadow of the Ottoman Empire. People start drinking plum brandy, there's more and more bad techno, slavery becomes more popular. This is a fancy way of saying that Europe's distinctiveness comes from being the ass-end of Asia. Like Japan, Western Europe has always been at the geographic periphery of the Asian heartland and all the stuff that was going on in it. But of course that's not how Europeans look at it and since history as we practice it more or less evolved there in the eighteenth century, there are more one-volume histories of Europe than of any other region in the world. Some are out of date, some focused on "the triumph of civilization" and some just boring. Here are my recommendations:

A History of Europe, by J.M. Roberts
Roberts's recent (1996) one volume history of Europe is one of the most popular out there right now. The other recent contender is Norman Davies's Europe: A History, but Davies's less focused, more piecemeal offering somehow just doesn't seem to hang together -- it's more of a reference manual than a single coherent story. Both Davies and Roberts write world history on the grand scale, but Roberts's other works -- volumes on the history of the world as well as a book on Europe in the twentieth century -- have somehow given him the edge when it comes to writing clear, economical prose. Roberts's history of Europe stretches all the way to the Urals, taking into its ambit both Russia and the Ottoman empire, which is quite a task -- even with more than 500 pages Roberts is forced to give you the big picture and not much more. Still, even if this book does little more than skim the surface -- what book could? -- Roberts's sure hand and keen sense of structure save the day. Stick this one in your bag the next time you head across the pond.

Natasha's Dance, by Orlando Figes
If you had to pick a companion volume to a history of Europe, you'd do well to focus on Russia or the Ottoman Empire and how their influence permeated west into Catholic Europe. While I'd recommend Lords of the Horizon for anyone interested in a delicious meditation on Ottoman culture and history, the Ottomans bridge the gap between regions too much to really fit in here. So instead I'll go with Russia, and with Orlando Figes's elegant cultural history of Russia. It's not so much a history of Russia as it is a history of the themes and ideas that have driven Russia's artists and writers. It's not that you don't learn of what's going on in the wider world (after all, you'll get this from Roberts's history), it's just that the focus is elsewhere. But focusing on Russia's unique situation between Europe and Asia and mastering mountains of anecdote about Russia's artists and musicians, Figes's doesn't give us Russia's history, he gives us its soul. It's a great way to learn about the country.

Southeast Asia

"Southeast Asia" is basically a term that Americans made up during the Second World War to describe a region unified by strategic importance rather than culture and history. On the continent, China looms large as a force driving trade along the south by sea and as a military force along the north. To the west Burma faces South Asia, and in fact the spread of South Asian religious traditions all the way to eastern Indonesia is what originally gave this area its name: "Indic Asia." But the Indonesian archipelago has its own complicated history, including centuries of Islamic culture. And then there are the Philippines, a group of islands of incredible cultural variety which Spain managed to hold onto for four hundred years. Finally, Muslim, Buddhist, and Catholic Southeast Asia have all been of strategic importance for the US ever since petroleum-powered navies made it America's left flank. So if you're looking for a history that goes beyond the Vietnam War, you may want to take a look at the following:

Souteast Asia: A Concise History, by Mary Heidhues
Concise is the right word. This book covers thousands of years of history in one slim volume. Heidhues's prose is straightforward and readable, and her focus on architectural monuments like Borobudur and Emelda Marcos's shoe closet help ground the reader as she rushes across the region. Nonetheless, Heidhues manages to combine economy with a keen sense of what an interested reader would want to know. This means that she skips the dreary chapters on political economy that most introductory textbooks linger on and focuses instead on pre-colonial empires and other cool topics. While there are other more well-known (and longer!) introductory histories, Heidhues manages to be comprehensive without dragging you down with an overly textbooky approach.

The Emergence of Modern Southeast Asia: A New History, edited by Norman Owen.
This book is so new -- still unpublished -- that you have to find out about it from the University of Hawaii web site. But boy does it look promising. Group-written by a variety of scholars, this does not look to be one of those "Cambridge History of X" volumes that are more a collection of articles than a proper volume. Owen's authors cut across particular histories of different places by adding more general chapters on religion and environment. The theme of the book is "changing names:" how Myanmar became British Burma became Burma became Myanmar, or how Ahutthaya became Bangkok and how Siam became Thailand. Each change of name hints at the wider historical forces that were moving the country at the time. Hawaii has a reputation for producing great, accessible scholarly work and so I am looking forward to this one. At 570+ pages, it more than makes up for Mary Heidhues's thinner introduction. Keep your eye out for this one.

So there you have it, twenty books covering the entire globe! In the next installment I'll complete the list with two general histories of the entire planet and then present the complete list. Thanks for reading, and see you next time.

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Dave / June 29, 2004 11:40 AM

I'm trying to access articles 1,2&3 but when I go to the archives, I get a forbidden page.

Andrew / June 29, 2004 12:03 PM

Sorry, Dave. We're working on getting the archive page back online -- it was a victim of the server switch. In the meantime, here's a direct link to the previous column, covering North and South America.


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