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Sunday, August 19

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Here's the profile: You are a twenty-something/thirty-something Internet-savvy hipster interested in politics who enjoys eating out. You want to learn more about the world. All of it. When the next world hot spot gets major CNN airtime, you don't want to scramble to Google along with everyone else in order to figure out where Bhutan is. You want to be the guy at Danny's who casually remarks that it was only a matter of time before Sino-Indian tensions politicized yet another interstitial Buddhist theocracy.

The goal: Develop a short list of books to get you up to speed on the history and culture of the entire world.

Here's the problem: You like to read, but you are not a glutton for punishment. You find academic texts tedious and dull (hell, I'm an academic and I often find them tedious and dull). You're not dumb, you simply refuse to read bad writing. The idea is to get a list of authoritative, readable, well-written histories of the world for the general reader that explains where today's issues and situations come from in lively, nontechnical prose. We're not talking about current affairs books on the Taliban, we're talking about books describing how Russian and British ambitions in Central Asia shaped Afghanistan in the nineteenth century. Finally, we need books that are in touch with recent scholarship. We need authors who take advantage of recent work in archeology, linguistics and popular histories to tell stories that are more than seventy year old "progress of man" books that start with Ancient Greece and end with America The Beautiful.

This idea of generating a short list of Books About the Entire World has been kicking around my head for some time. I started out with a simple goal: Find 10 books -- each covering a different area of the globe -- which would give you the Big Picture. These would be the only 10 books you'd have to read in order to get grasp of the entire planet: North America, South America, Africa, South Asia, East Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, West Asia (i.e. "the Middle East"), Europe, and the Pacific. I came up with various lists, but 10 was a difficult and somewhat arbitrary number. So I decided to double it. Twenty books -- two per region. Then, just for the hell of it, I threw in two more books on the topic of "world history: the biggest picture."

My list of 22 books is not set in stone. Although I'm happy with some of the regions, there are others where I feel I'm on shaky ground -- particularly in Latin America (let me know what you'd recommend). In this and future columns I'll share with you the 22 books that I've decided are the most essential to read. But I do so on one condition: you've got to tell me what you think of the list, and if you have a better idea for a book than I have, you have to tell me about it.

I'll start this week with two areas of the world that I have nailed down pretty solidly: East Asia and†Central Asia.

East Asia

By East Asia I mean essentially China and the surrounding states such as the steppes to the north (these days called Mongolia) and Korea and, partially, Japan (although Japan will get more coverage in the Pacific). East Asia for me fades into Southeast Asia in the south when it hits the mountains that form the catchment for the Irrawaddy and the Mekong, and to the west where it hits Tibet and the Tarim basin. I'm sure that Koreans and Japanese don't much cotton to being told they are "states that surround China," but China's role in history sort of demands that it get the lion's share of the attention. In fact, one of the main reasons to focus on China is to learn how changeable and multicultural the entity we call China is. So we have:

The Open Empire: A History of China to 1600 by Valerie Hansen
The best popular history of China before the Ming by one of the greatest scholars of early Chinese history. Although essentially a long textbook with occasionally textbooky prose, the scholarship is up to date and ties in to the latest in archeology and art history. It is also pleasantly revisionist and insists on mentioning women, commoners, and people other than the Emperor. However, it does wear its heart on its sleeve about this issue -- sometimes you wonder whether you're reading about a famous woman poet because she's a poet or a woman. Still, Hansen's general idea -- that China was an "open empire" of many different ethnicities and cultures for most of its history -- is not only true, it's a useful anecdote to the picture that many of have of China as a single, ancient, homogeneous mass of Chinese people. If you want to know what the experts think about early China, this is the book to read.

The Search For Modern China, by Johnathan Spence
I mean really -- could you believe for one moment that I wouldn't include this book on the list? Johnathan Spence is the most well-known English language historian of China, and his book The Search For Modern China was hailed as a masterpiece the minute it rolled off the press. A history of China from the fall of the Ming to Tienanmen Square, Spence's book is a must on any list of major world histories.

Central Asia

Central Asia, Inner Asia, Eurasia -- a lot of this area of the world's identity comes from all of the places it isn't. This classic location of the "silk road" is east of Persia/Iran, north of the mountains that mark the border of South Asia, east of China, and south of steppes that extend to the arctic circle. To a certain extent, the result is a mishmash of regions that would otherwise have their own regional sense -- The Caucasus, "transoxania" (Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan), Tibet and the areas to its east that it once (a millennia and a half ago) ruled over. Today places like Xinjiang, Afghanistan, and Uzbekistan are attracting attention for everything from tourism to terrorism with a good dose of natural gas and petroleum thrown in for good measure. Who wouldn't want to learn about it?

The Silk Road: Two Thousand Years in the Heart of Asia, by Frances Wood
Frances Wood's beautifully illustrated, brand spanking new (2002) offering from University of California Press is a great way to learn about the culture and history of Central Asia. As the head of the Chinese section at the British Library, Wood is imminently qualified as both a scholar and the keeper of the Sir Aurel Stein collection. Don't know who Sir Aurel Stein is? Well you sure as hell will when you're done with this book, whose story is told through the histories of the people who have passed through the region. British explorer Stein takes his place among Muslim imams, Buddhist missionaries, traders, and Chinese emperors. Well written, lavishly illustrated, and up to date, this book is the shiznit.

Dust of Empire: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland, by Karl E. Meyer
I'd be willing to admit that there are better books out there than Meyer's, but it does fit the bill. Where Wood's book dealt with history and culture, Meyer has his eyes on politics. His goal is to trace geopolitics in Central Asia from "the Great Game" -- Britain and Russia's imperial competition in the nineteenth century -- right up the US's post 9/11 invasion in Afghanistan. It's more up to date (it's barely a year old and just came out in paperback) than Hopkirk's classic but dated The Great Game, and Dust includes chapters on the Caucasus and Iran which round out an overview of the area nicely. If I had one book to recomend to you about Central Asia, this wouldn't be it. But it is a good book, and it complements Frances Wood's book quite nicely. It is also short, which helps.

So that's Central and East Asia. Next time around we'll move on to two more areas of the world: Africa and the Pacific. Questions? Thoughts? Recommendations? Let me know.

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Comments

jmo / April 16, 2004 10:42 AM

"Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45" by Barbara Tuchman won the Pulitzer Prize for a reason...it is a terrific window into the foreign policy blunders that set up what we are seeing and/or experiencing today in that area of the world. It covers China and Japan and some of the Pacific. It's a great read.

If you cover the Middle East soon (it also mentions Africa in a context that many people don't know about), this declassified document from the Truman Papers (online) is an interesting examination of the issues in Palestine and Israel.

"An Unexpected Light: Travels in Afghanistan" is a real gem of a book written by Jason Elliot. He manages to weave his personal history with the country alongside of his knowledge of the country's history with ease. Another great read that is, at times, unexpectedly humorous as he recalls his occasional blunders and confusion as a stranger in a strange land.

Any book which showcases the work and stories of David and Peter Turnley is fascinating to me...these twin photojournalists capture events in all parts of the world...South Africa, Bosnia, Palestine, Iraq, Europe. They are frontline documentary photographers...there shots are often raw instead of "pretty" but present the visuals often left out of books and news stories.

Emily / April 20, 2004 8:55 AM

I like this idea; I admit I've become world-history complacent. This list sounds to be what I need for long summer weekends at the beach.

Saying that, have you heard of/read the Armchair Diplomat Melissa Rossi? I'm curious about her book but haven't picked it up yet; I've heard it's a bit shallow but still a useful overview.

I look forward to seeing what books are next on the list!

Conor / April 22, 2004 7:11 PM

This is a great idea. For the Pacific section, I recommend John Dower's Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. Both fascinating and enlightening.

 

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