Vacation Reading

While on vacation, I tend to read other people’s books, rather than (or in addition to) the ones I actually brought with me. Some quick notes:

Modern Art and the Death of a Culture – Hans Rookmaker, 1970
Rookmaker examines the explicit messages and implicit worldviews conveyed by painting in different styles. He also explores connections between artists’ expressed philosophy and their work. The latter is the most successful theme in the work, although I suspect that by focusing on artists he overstates the degree to which modernist etc. ideas were minority and even “hidden” opinions before mass media. The power of his thesis is hampered by two things: first, although he recognizes the focuses created by iconography and devotional art his defense of them as a Protestant is at best half-hearted; and second, he seems to me to have little love for his own Dutch tradition, suspecting it of already transitioning towards the modernity he distrusts. As a result he does not quite appear to have a role to give to beauty.

The Renaissance of the Twelfth Century – Charles Haskins, 1927
Haskins’ work gives an overview of learning in the twelfth century. He details works made newly available in Europe through contact with the Byzantines, Arabs, and Moors, as well as outlining developments in education from monastery and cathedral schools and court establishments to the initial stages of the recognizeable university. Appears to be one of the earlier attempts to correct perceptions of the “backward” Middle Ages and extended “Dark Ages”.

Historians Fallacies: Towards a Logic of Historical Thought – David Fischer, 1970
Fisher theorizes that good arguments about history follow a logical structure, albeit one not (fully) captured by formal logics as developed for strictly verbal or mathematical proofs. This work attempts to discover those rules by illustrating failures of argument, organized around several themes. When it comes to stating theses, finding and analyzing data, and organizing formal arguments (as appropriate), it’s a very useful resourse. Fischer is a little hindered by his rejection of relativism while refusing to set a firm standard himself. He insists in introducing the work that he is interested in “fallacy” primarily in form and that the primary responsibility of a historian is to make his working premises clear – but later rejects several common and plausible sets of premises, mostly having to do with relating history to moral judgment, as themselves fallacious.

King Solomon’s Mines – H. Rider Haggard, 1885
Probably the best known of Haggard’s books, at least in part due to the number of film adaptations. Also looks to me like an inspiration for significant parts of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. A decent thriller marred for current reading by subservience to the racial theories of the day, it seems to me that its actual literary value will be difficult to judge without significantly more cultural distance from those particular errors. It’s worth noting that Haggard clearly felt something was wrong with the scheme, but also wasn’t going to challenge it: he uses “Negro” only a few times and explicitly rejects ruder forms, prefering descriptions of individuals to stereotypes (though ironically one suspects the success of this work set a few); and includes an African love interest for an English gentleman – though ultimately kills her (not him) off complete with a monologue about how it wouldn’t work out.

Comments: Giles’ Six Old English Chronicles

I picked up this set of translations by J. A. Giles, some-time fellow of Oxford’s Corpus Christi college, in a used bookstore at some point. I’ve tagged this post “comments” rather than “review” because I my own lack of expertise and the nature of the compilation make the traditional review all but impossible. If I were either a fully-trained and practicing Latinist, or an authority on British history, I might be able to form more definite conclusions.

The six works included are translated from Latin originals, and mention in some form the invasions of Saxons et al., although beyond that I cannot conceive what particular theme was thought to unite them. I have no standing to dispute Giles’ claim that they are “all of essential importance to those who like to study history in the very words of contemporary writiers” – a noble goal – and yet the erratic arrangment of the resulting book leads me very much to doubt Gile’s primary claim was scholastic. I suspect, in fact, that he began the project as a dabbling in his spare time and eventually published out of vanity, or – less believably on the basis of likely sales – monetary need, or the request of some superior that he publish something, or that of students that his expertise be preserved.

My chief grounds for this suspicion are as follows:

  1. The apparent absence of any additional editing beyond Giles’ own. George Bell and Sons (the credited publisher) seem to have faithfully set the text they were sent, ignoring such howlers as the fact that the six chronicles are listed in a different order in the preface than the title page and the actual book.
  2. The openly amateur nature of the translation at times, most notably Ethelward’s Chronicle. The Latin, however corrupted, can hardly justify the choice to neither translate nor leave in the original text in several places. Similarly, the spurious account attributed to a “Richard of Cirencenster” has an absolutely muddled – and extensive – set of footnotes, some of which are evidently the original “translator”‘s and some of which must be Giles’ own, but I am unable to tell reliably which are which. Finally, Giles openly admits he had recourse to older translations, and in places as much as states he simply copied them, perhaps adjusting archaic language, when he thought they were already good enough.
  3. Giles himself seems undecided whether his work is driven by scholarship or interest. His preface takes pain to clarify his disbelief in Geoffrey of Monmouth and “Richard”. But the footnotes to Geoffrey are for the most part as painstaking in detail as for the works more “historical” to his own view, only occasionally protesting how vehemently he believes in its inaccuracy. He is inclined to believe Geoffrey at least thought his own sources were historical. Giles seems to encourage the reader to supposing that Geoffrey’s source may have been an expanded version of Nennius, whose work he is oddly content to take as fully historical, at least in intent, merely noting known inaccuracies despite the two telling remarkably similar stories. Geoffrey he seems to suspect of indulging a patron. Similarly, while he states in his preface that is “Richard” entirely spurious, he appears to actually suspect that that work is less fabrication than compilation, noting that much of it is copied or corrupted from Roman historians, chiefly Caesar – that in fact the only false representation may have been the pretense of the “discoverer” having knowledge of a specific original author. The “Iter”, or a record of travels (commonly kept, it appears, by Roman tax and military officials), Giles in fact excerpts entirely from “Richard”‘s narrative and treats as a completely legitimate copy of some other, otherwise unknown, source.

As regards the translation itself – at least where, as in parts of Ethelward and occasionally Geoffrey and Nennius, he does not just give up – he appears to have done a rather good job, at least in capturing author’s different tones, and also in presenting a unified voice for each, despite his own use of older translations. Ethelward’s is primarily genealogical, apparently sent in several installments to a relative married to some German king, and cramped by overly stylized familial affections. (The other works suggest it would be possible to figure out which king, and Giles thinks he’s worked out the right one, but I leave that aside for now.) Asser’s Life of Alfred is straightforward and inspiring, and if the reader does not quite believe all the legends I am not sure whether to blame Asser, Giles, wisdom, or a cynical age. Geoffrey is purely exciting, if incomprehensible in places, mainly due to the Merlinic prophecies. Gildas’s work is less history than sermon, and I recommend it – if not necessarily in this edition, which might be hard to find – to anyone as a corrective measure for today’s necessities. He was a man willing to blame his own “side” for their predicaments and chastise kings for their sins – a practice which seems to have eventually gotten him exiled to France.

Nennius is, as mentioned above, an earlier and more sober Geoffrey, though even he is hardly contemporary with the events he details: claiming to write in 858 AD. Giles states that various other authorities suggest alternate dates differing by up to a hundred years on either side – but on what grounds are unclear, as in date-keeping in their own time the chroniclers are rarely off (from our own estimates, or at least from Giles’ footnotes) by more than ten years, if that. “Richard” I suspect really is a spurious character, as he represents himself as a monk cribbing notes together in spare time and much reprimanded for such worldly pursuits by a superior – but I, like Giles, would like to think the actual collection of partial sources probably did exist somewhere, perhaps crammed on the back shelf of an abbey library, then abducted and subsequently forgotten for a hundred years by some Tudor lordling, finally being brought to light by some over-clever younger son. Giles does not illumine us as to who foisted “Richard” on the public, and I am not now in the mood to ruin my supposals by searching the internet.

Perhaps the most surprising discovery from these chronicles was the realization that Kipling’s would-be emperor Maximus, supporting character in the Roman portion of his Puck of Pook’s Hill, was an entirely real person – and if Kipling idealized him, perhaps not unbelieveably so, and his faults in Puck are his historical ones, if not all of them.

I would have gotten a better understanding from reading through with a map of Britain to hand: though it might not have resolved all difficulties, as the British geographers’ sense of place grows steadily more absymal as they get farther from Wales and Cornwall; the Saxons are as bad moving away from London; the number of towns no longer in existence or doubtfully identified or both is enormous; and Roman numerals, as Giles explains (for once quite clearly) are notoriously unreliable to read and copy and read again.

Altogether a fascinating volume to read, as the length of these comments may suggest, and the works – even Ethelward – are likely deserving of further attention and one can only thank Giles for introducing them, despite my intention to look for other editions next time.

Reflections on an Old Textbook

Having limited access to the local libraries at present, I have been making some inroads on the set of books that is on my shelves but so far unread.  One of these was Dr. Hutton Webster’s Early European History, which appears (from names in the front) to have been acquired somewhere by my parents and scrounged by myself from some stack of books which they had, eventually, decided to pass on.

This text, as explained by Webster in his preface, is a selection and rearrangement from two previous textbooks, his Ancient History and Medieval and Modern History, chosen to meet then-new requirements put forward during the 1910s by New York’s Regents’ Syllabus and eventually the National Education Association.  It appears that a two-year course in European history was recommend for all or certain high schools, of which this volume met a requirement for the study of “ancient and Oriental civilization, English and Continental history to approximately the end of the seventeenth century, and the period of American exploration”.  The book I have read is the second, or “revised”, edition published in 1924.

After the manner of textbooks, each chapter concludes with several questions for study, which take many forms: factual review, discussion of students’ experiences, reflection on famous (or less famous) sayings or statements about the period covered in the chapter, and what amount to prompts for further research: that is, questions, usually factual or comparative, that could not be answered simply from Webster’s text.  Webster recommends that his text be used in conjunction with readings from original sources (of which he himself had also prepared several collections, though appears not to have reorganized these to match the new recommendations: I believe he cites four or five such volumes throughout this textbook).

Whether such original sources would suffice to answer all of the research questions I am unsure, but from my memories of studying such topics, and my guess as to the extent of these “extended, unified, and interesting extracts” such as would be provided at the high school level, I would guess not – which however raises the question of how much additional research students might have been expected to do.  (The answer, almost certainly, is that this varied extensively from school to school even where this textbook was used: what Webster had in mind, as a college professor writing for high schools, I don’t know how to guess.)

As far as his topic goes, Webster’s story proper moves from early civilizations in Egypt and the Middle East (which appear to be his “Orient”); to Greece and then Rome as unifiers around the Mediterranean; then to the civilizations of the surviving (Byzantine) empire, the Arabic Islamic caliphate and its successor states, and the European states rebuilding from invaded Roman provinces, through years of feudalism and Papal supremacy to Renaissance, Reformation, exploration, and colonization; and finally to some account of France and England through the seventeenth century.

This is recognizeable as the “Western civilization” narrative (at least as it’s generally thought of in America – one suspects European authors might not drop Poland, Russia, and the Austrian Hapsburgs, to say nothing of the smaller central European states, out of the story quite so soon).  It appears to be an arrangement intended by the recommendations mentioned above.  Without access to Webster’s other textbooks, either as constructed for this set of recommendations or in their original form, I don’t know how he would have considered this to fit into history as a whole.

Webster appears to have considered himself primarily an anthropologist, and it’s worth noting some of the peculiarities he displays in his introductory chapter and throughout the book.  He considers history to begin with written records, and for writing to be a prerequisite for considering a society civilized.  He considers “savage”, “barbarian”, and “civilized” to be at least roughly scientific classes, the first indicating a tool-using society without metals, and the first two without writing and likely nomadic.  In this summary I am not fully representating the degree to which Webster acknowledges the lack of clarity in these distinctions.

It is worth noting here Webster’s thoughts on race.  He again considers race as it appears in history to be essentially scientific.  Notably he considers the Semitic peoples to be White; and is inclined to see the Pacific and American tribes each as a separate “race” – making five instead of the common three.  However he considers this purely descriptive, likely an artifact of separations in prehistory, and is entirely in favor of what we would call mixed-race relationships: he considers this the obvious thing to have happened in the colonial era, and students are in fact asked to show that mixing of the races is a benefit, if not requirement, for a strong civilization.

On the other hand, Webster does consider that a civilized society is essentially justified in fighting other societies still in a savage or barbaric state, and even subjugating them – although his arguments seem somewhat sophistic.  He appears to assume the barbarian society will always – or as close as no matter – have started the fighting, and is insistent that while conquering the barbarians is all to the good, the conquered people ought to be given equality as soon as practicable: he seems, for instance, to view this as a strength of early Rome, and a failure to completely extend citizenship over later conquests as a great source of weakeness in the later empire.  He dislikes slavery – and while he spends little time on conditions in any colonized area, that may result from the assigned subject matter, or even his editors.   Webster himself seems to have been at least at the fringes of some kind of civil rights activism, at least by the standards of mainstream early 20th century American academia.

At the same time, some of Webster’s judgments are made in ignorance, though whether wilfull or incidental it is often difficult to say, having no really clear knowledge myself of the state of American scholarship at the time.  He does not seem quite aware of the extent of the central and south American native civilizations before European colonization, to say nothing of their North American societies; he considers that only the Chinese and Japanese in Asia had – apparently in his judgment even at the time of his writing – actually reached the point of being “civilized states” which is, by his own criteria, demonstrably false and here I think he really should have known better, though he shows a tendency, as he progresses through the years, to lose track of his essential definition of civilization (writing, with the urban life and establishment of  settled agriculture which he suggests tend to be contemporaneous)  and instead judge societies as only “really” civilized if they possess the most modern technology.

As a textbook, these factual and ethical flaws – together with whatever judgment one may make on the legitimacy of the overall narrative – are its greatest drawback.  Webster’s style is simple, readable, and engaging, and the questions he provides for study, while not entirely consistent in phrasing, number, or seriousness from chapter to chapter, are quite good.

Review: The Silk Roads

Peter Frankopan’s 2015 book The Silk Roads: A New History of the World is best understood as an intellectual exercise in narrative perspective.  As far as I can tell, the book does not depend on original research or even re-interpretation of previous research.  What Frankopan does in this work is to focus entirely on the civilizations of the Middle East, rather than drifting slowly West with progression of technology and global power as is common.

There are obvious successes in this experiment.  Frankopan explores the peripheries of the Roman empire and its western successors in much more detail than the standard western historical narrative allows, from the Persian and other kingdoms that contested Rome’s power to the huge flood of trade between Rome, the Indian states, and other powers – including, at a remove, China.  He describes the rise of Islam and the Islamic states of the Middle Ages in some detail, but including also those which did not turn to Islam – and examining how many of the most successful were those built on an appreciation for knowledge and other fine things, and allowing some tolerance in religion and manners.

The book is also useful, in that it provides an overview of western powers’ influence and interference through the colonial and modern eras.  Bribery and gunpoint were largely the order of the day, together with a general reluctance to treat Asian powers with even the token equality of political niceties.  The most surprising thing to me was the extent to which the British perceived their rival to be Russia – though as the British Empire being seen, in some ways, more important than Britain itself to prestige and prosperity, this is not actually surprising on reflection.

Where the narrative is least convincing is in its treatment of the question of why power moved away from the Middle East – the Ottoman Empire and other regional powers.  Frankopan depends mainly on a technological explanation, to the extent he answers the question at all.  He deals with medieval European powers as largely belligerent insignificant bywaters – not, admittedly, an unfair characterization at many times – and to some extent downplays the expansionism and internal conflicts of the state in the Middle East.  He noticeably avoids the longstanding explanation in the traditional western narrative that European powers in the Renaissance and after benefitted from a renewed interest in learning, and eventually learned the value of tolerance to statesmanship.  It is entirely possible this is done intentionally, another inverting of traditional western focuses: but it is hard to tell.  Usually Frankopan makes it clear when he is making a point, but I would say intention is not signaled in this case.

Frankopan writes clearly but is not a great stylist, and his idiosyncracies occasionally distract from his story.  He is, in dealing with the most recent events, perhaps too optimistic: even another five years perspective casts a pall on his views both of the Arab Spring and Chinese political intentions.  However on the whole I both enjoyed the book and found it very informative.  I would say the author succeeded in his goal of presenting a summary history in a new perspective – though next best, I suppose, to a similar work from an author native to the region – and would recommend it as a way to engage in the exercise yourself.

Reviews: Unicorn Variations, The History of the Franks

In what will probably be the final review in my year-long project, I add in a couple different books – one a collection of short stories (science fiction and fantasy) and essays by Roger Zelazny, and one a quite antique book of European History.  It’s been a little bit interesting to have a reason to note what I’ve been reading: my chief discovery was how very much I actually re-read; the other thing I noticed was that I rarely seem to have fewer than three books in progress at a time – if nothing else, I’ll have a bit of light reading, a more serious work, and then some other book at school for downtime – and this is without considering any devotional reading.

Unicorn Variations

A major theme of this collection is foreign intelligences – alien, man-made, or mythological.  Other stories are perhaps better thought of as Zelazny’s thought experiments on sex and death – not that they don’t overlap.  Most stories are introduced briefly, and interspersed with the stories are some short essays on writing fiction (some specifically addressing science fiction).  Not all feature Zelazny as his best – in particular, the lead and titular story “Unicorn Variation” is somewhat meandering, perhaps a result of having too many ideas attempted in too few pages.  (Alternatively, because the actual story is, at the length it is told, fairly uninteresting.)

Although this has nothing to do with the collection as a whole, I did notice with some surprise that when I read the story “Home is the Hangman”, I recognized it – from the very first Zelazny I ran across, a novel of sorts (which someone else had brought along to round-up for a high school Shakespeare adaptation) called My Name is Legion.  Having taken a look, I found that Legion is a rather artificial construct – three short stories featuring the same character (perhaps originally only similar ones?) strung together.

The History of the Franks

Gregory of Tours’ work, on the other hand, is a fairly scholarly piece of business written in a popular tone – to the point I wondered whether the translator ( Lewis Thorpe) might not have overdone it a bit in places.  To go through it properly would take a good deal of time and some careful note-taking to keep all the names straight.  It’s an enjoyable read, not too long: Gregory takes a section to go through the entire history of the world (as he understood it) and then gets down to the rather gory business of the Frankish kingdoms’ politics and occasional ecclesiastical disputes.

The book produced a number of impressions, of which I will mention the most notable.  First, Gregory’s history covers quite a bit of his own time, and it is curious how self-effacing he is when dealing with political matters, especially when contrasted with his lengthy narratives of a few ecclesiastical or religious controversies.  Second, it serves as a useful reminder to be careful about our self-evaluations: despite the History being mainly one of chaos and civil war, at one point Gregory calmly declares how much better off the Franks have been than those heretical Arian Visigoths (the Spanish kingdoms), whose king had to put down a rebellion by his son.  Third, remarkable mainly because of the weather this year, for several years in a row Gregory notes that the Winter was much warmer than usual.

A curious fact is the number of things Gregory (or his later copyists) managed to get wrong, despite all his evident care – the most startling are his misnaming or misarranging of Biblical persons in his introduction (the translator suggests that he must have felt confident enough to work from memory), but evidently (judging from the footnotes) Gregory’s account does not entirely agree with other contemporary works as to the names or order of various dynasties.  However, those same footnotes also mention periodically – perhaps a dozen times – that one or another of Gregory’s sources has, sadly, since been lost.

Review: The Rising Sun

It is a bit of an odd coincidence that I would get around to writing about John Toland’s history of World War II as perceived by Japan on December 7th.  I even considered putting it off another day, but I think there is a certain fitness to it as well.  Titled in full The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire 1936-1945, Toland’s work focuses in some detail on Japanese politics leading up to war with the United States and on the internal negotiations required before the Japanese surrender.  The military campaigns between are sketched, with a curious amount of detailed attention paid to Guadalcanal (perhaps as a sort of icon of Japanese difficulties throughout the war) but otherwise as much said about the infighting, misperceptions, and socially driven problems of the Japanese campaign.

It is an interesting book as much as for what is left out as for what is put in.  Japan’s campaigns in Asia proper are mentioned briefly, but despite contending that the drain on resources was significant – an entirely plausible claim – little detail is given to them.  Similarly, Japanese atrocities in the Philippines are examined fairly closely, but those in China or Korea barely mentioned.  This is – unfortunately – hardly unique in writing on World War II, but curious given Toland’s clear intention to at least outline the entire scope of Japanese planning and action.  Intention outrunning performance is of course also less than uncommon.

The most interesting aspect, especially in comparison with more standard histories (especially from the period relatively soon after the war; The Rising Sun was published in 1970), is Toland’s examination of Japanese ideals and actions – contrasted with Allied ideals and actions.  For a brief summary: what do we make of Japan’s conception of itself as a Pan-Asian leader, contrasted with its colonialist brutality in its campaigns; but then set against American proclamations of democratic idealism, as against actual connivance with continued French or (save for a popular revolt) Dutch colonialism?

Toland I would guess began with a thesis, which in the course of his research faded to something more like the desire to convey an impression.  The most distinct impression created is the tragedy of the war: the Japanese pre-war judgment (which led, Japanese military theories being what they were, directly to the Pearl Harbor attack) that as they stood the Japanese ambitions were incompatible with American interests seems incontrovertible, but Japanese and American misunderstandings of each other’s politics and culture contributed to the way the war came, and the way it ended, both far more dramatic and destructive than it seems they might have been.  That the narrative ends more or less with the Japanese surrender was perhaps the only plausible option; however,  a continuation or another work considering both the continuation and transformation of Japanese politics and culture would be necessary, I think, for any kind of real conclusion to the story Toland begins.  Though 1936 is rather a middle of things place to begin the tale, as well.

Two Reviews: The Gift of Rain and Man of War

The Gift of Rain

This book I picked up off the library’s new books shelf because I like rain.  Tan Twan Eng’s debut novel is written as the account (as far as I can tell, entirely fictional, even to many of the places) of a young man growing up in British colonial Indonesia, first under the threat of war with Japan and then in the occupation.  The story is told from his own perspective as an old man.

Eng’s style is clean and clear, with an eye for detail and good grasp of character.  However in places the plausibility of the action described stretches thin, even while reading.  On reflection much of the story seems very improbable; though I believe that is supposed to be part of the point.  Many of the comparisons which come to mind echo the theater: how much, both of reality and of the story told, is an act?  The arc of the tale on the whole would do a Greek tragedy proud, and the body count would not look out of place on a Shakespearean stage.

Grade: B+

Man of War: Sir Robert Holmes and the Restoration Navy

For once, I read a book that I don’t feel silly giving a grade to.  Richard Ollard’s biography of Sir Robert Holmes, despite its comfortable style, bears many of the hallmarks of the most tome-like academic work.  It is almost strictly a biography and says little about the basic facts and figures of Charles II’s navy – the subject in pursuit of which I mainly bought the book.  Ollard clearly has a good deal of respect – even enthusiasm – for Holmes; he also holds him up as an archetype of the officers who commanded the Royal Navy in its transition from Drake’s freebooters to Nelson’s (more or less) professional corps.  He repeatedly compares Holmes as an officer to Pepys as an administrator, and is inclined to think Holmes doesn’t get enough credit from other historians.

The writing is very uneven, veering from the aura of strictest academic neutrality to the gusto of a popular account, complete with contractions, and back again, with no predictability.  On the other hand, all his claims are thoroughly sourced, and Ollard seems far more comfortable admitting – even pointing out – gaps in his narrative, sources, or theories than many historians I’ve read.  Overall the impression one gets is that he accidentally sent a late draft to the publishers, instead of the finished work.  Although I thoroughly enjoyed it, in light of the inconsistent tone, lack of a few pertinent details, and tendency to excuse any and all of his protagonist’s (apparently relatively few, at least by the standards of his day) failings I give the work a C+.

Review: The Transformation of the World

Jurgen Osterhammel’s The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is an overview of the developments worldwide, mainly in the realm of the state.  It shares certain characteristics of the Holy Roman Empire in that – by analogy with the famous dictum – it is neither quite global, nor exactly a history, and least of all does Osterhammel confine himself to the nineteenth century as strictly defined.

Osterhammel deals with events around the entire world, and puts serious effort into placing the causes of various movements (whether literal movements such as immigration, or intellectual developments) specifically in their native context, rather than strictly viewing them as reactions or contrasts to European thought.  However, this effort is strictly limited to developments within what might today be called “power centers”: Japan, China, India, and Asian Russia receive careful treatment, but other societies – whether in central Africa, the Indonesian archipelago, or the Balkans – are dealt with in much less detail, being referenced mainly as “peripheries” of major players.

A little more detail about those areas is found when he deals with conflicts; however, this is mainly limited to a section of the book in which he writes at length about the various changes in the extent and nature of political territories and authority over the period he refers to as the nineteenth century.  Much of his approach is guided by his thoughts on how the period should be divided up; he is in favor – for the most part – of considering the “nineteenth century” as a longer period, roughly from 1760 to 1914 or even 1937, with ramifications down to today: the ideas productively brought forth in the revolutions of the late eighteenth century are common worldwide today but, as he puts it, “not fully worked out” in, for example, China.

As partly revealed by this major question of framing the book in time, Osterhammel has a good deal to say about political power structures, much of it useful.  Two examples would be his contention that the United States, roughly by the Louisiana Purchase but certainly in dealing with various Native American tribes, took on early much of the same imperial agenda as the European powers; and his comparison of “warlordism” in South America and the disintegrating Chinese empire of the early twentieth century.  Either one of these is a subject which would deserve a book of its own; however, neither is actually explored in detail.  The ideas are suggestive but any attempt at proof or explanation is somewhat lacking.

Overall, in fact, detail is lacking: the book seems to be written mainly for those who already have at least a general idea of world history in the nineteenth century, and are looking for a way to bring it all together.  Fortunately or unfortunately, Osterhammel doesn’t really manage that: his determination not to force a “Western” narrative on events seems at war with his interest in political change and his obvious conviction that the modern liberal administrative state is in fact progress over any previous institution of governance (with perhaps some small caveats, for example the societal restrictions imposed by the modern concepts of citizen versus “alien”).

The result is a somewhat disjointed structure – at no point does Osterhammel really indulge in any kind of “narrative” – filled with much valuable information, analysis, and conjecture.  However, it does have glaring weaknesses: his evaluation of religious life in the nineteenth century seems incomplete at best, and any discussion of other culture – literature, music, even the “exhibitions” that characterized the era – is completely lacking.  The writing is good on the whole; I did not figure out if the English version were original or a translation, and if so by whom.  Each individual section – calling them “chapters” would be unhelpful – holds up fairly well on its own apart from the lack of detail.  However, considered as a whole is it somewhat weaker.  The book would be most useful for a historian with a detailed knowledge of his own smaller field looking for additional political reference points either for comparison or framework: to call the book a general history of the nineteenth century would be inaccurate.