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Category: The Orient

Book Review: The Great Divergence (Kenneth Pomeranz)

It is hardly news that the West has led the world economically for the past 200 years, or more.  This superiority (let’s be honest—that’s what it is) academics commonly call the “Great Divergence,” a term coined by Samuel Huntington in 1996, though the study of Western economic superiority began much earlier.  There are many sub-questions one can ask—e.g., what constitutes “the West”?  Is it England?  England and parts of the Continent?  How does America fit in?  When exactly did this takeoff begin?  Are other countries now catching up, or even passing, the West?  But these sub-questions are all small change compared to the most important question—why did the West diverge from the rest of the world at all, when all of world history up to that time exemplified the Malthusian Trap, where productivity increased too slowly to increase per capita output even when aggregate output increased?

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Book Review: A History of Islamic Societies (Ira Lapidus)

This is a famous book.  Together with Marshall Hodgson’s three-volume The Venture of Islam, it is the touchstone of modern long-form histories of the Islamic world.  A History of Islamic Societies, as its title implies, covers both history and theology.  Given that I like history, and that I have a particular interest in comparative theology (primarily as between Christianity and Islam, with forays into other religions, living and dead), you would think reading this book would be, for me, an ideal way to spend my time.  But it nearly defeated me.

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Book Review: Age of Anger: A History of the Present (Pankaj Mishra)

Twenty years ago, that liberal Baal, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, assigned me to read The Golden Bowl, by Henry James.  She said it was the best book she had ever read.  Maybe it was, but it was unreadable, and I am just as smart as Nussbaum.  The problem with The Golden Bowl is that you know Henry James is very bright, yet you have to struggle so much to get at the meaning that you wonder if there is any meaning there—or is it all just a parlor trick to gratify the author’s vanity and flatter the reader who claims to understand?  But, certainly, the weight of learned opinion favors Henry James as a genius and me as an imbecile.  A similar freighted opacity characterizes Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger.  As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on who’s the imbecile.

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Book Review: Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World (Justin Marozzi)

I, and many others, have been exhausted in recent months by the nonstop political noise machine. So I pulled this book off the shelf, figuring that a biography of the 14th Century warlord Tamerlane would be pretty much non-political. Maybe not as non-political as a coffee table book about, say, flowers, but close, and to me more interesting. I was not disappointed. This book proved an informative escape—depressing at times, certainly, like any tale of violence, but at least I didn’t have to think or talk about 21st Century politics at any time, and won’t in this review. For like all of us, I am weary unto death of all that (though not weary enough to not return to it).

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Book Review: Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution (Toby Huff)

Toby Huff’s Intellectual Curiosity and the Scientific Revolution is in many ways a companion book to his earlier The Rise of Early Modern Science. That book was a comparative study of the approach to science in the major world cultures, discussing in great detail and breadth why it was that modern science only arose in Europe. This 2011 book complements Huff’s earlier book by more narrowly showing the results of different ways of thinking, in China, India and the Muslim world, when exposed in the early 17th Century to a specific new European invention, the telescope. The sweep of this book is less broad than Huff’s earlier book, but this is an easier read, and very informative in its own right.

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Book Review: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World (Peter Frankopan)

The East, what in a more direct and confident time we called the Orient, has always held a deep fascination for a certain subset of Westerners.  This fascination frequently centers around a whole or partial perceived superiority of the East to the West.  For example, not so long ago, there was a vogue for Westerners, from TE Lawrence to Wilfred Thesiger, to wander the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia, where they found spiritual fulfillment, or at least something they thought they could not find in the West.  Peter Frankopan, a Byzantine expert and the author of “The Silk Roads,” is a modern, stay-at-home version of those men.  And while his book is interesting and not without merit, it is marred by his sharing with those earlier Westerners a credulous and unsupported belief in the superiority of the Orient.

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Book Review: The Bloody White Baron (James Palmer)

“The Bloody White Baron” is one of those fascinating short books about a nasty little corner of the world during a nasty time. The nasty little corner of the world is Mongolia; the nasty time is the Russian Civil War. The eponymous Baron is Roman Nikolai Maximilian von Ungern-Sternberg, of Estonian/German extraction, who was called the last khan of Mongolia and waged a brutal, doomed minor campaign against the Chinese and the Bolsheviks in the early 1920s. Naturally, he came to a bad end.

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Book Review: Curzon: Imperial Statesman (David Gilmour)

“Curzon” is one of those typically British biographies of dead political figures. Such biographies tend to go into great detail not just about the protagonist, but about long-forgotten political issues fought among long-forgotten men. If you are interested in the protagonist, or the period, this can be excellent, as long as the writing is good, and Gilmour’s is good. But if you’re looking for an objectively thrilling read, you should stay away.

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Book Review: The Rise of Early Modern Science: Islam, China and the West
(Toby Huff)

This is a magisterial book, pulling together innumerable threads into a coherent, cohesive whole. It is actually a different book than I expected—it spends much more time on the sociology and philosophy of science, in the abstract and as tied to and generated by each society, and much less time on individual scientific inventions and advances. Those do appear, of course, but more by way of illustration than discussion. So if you’re looking for a catalog of inventions, you may be disappointed (though Huff apparently has a later book that is more that), but you’ll probably learn more with this book written the way it is.

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Book Review: Curry: A Global History (Colleen Taylor Sen)

This short book is an interesting read, even if it’s really just a summary of the different impacts of Indian cooking spices around the world. The story isn’t new, of course—it’s well known that the migration of Indians around the world has resulted in a wide range of hybrid cuisines, some with very little resemblance to actual Indian cuisine. But reading details, such as the huge popularity of something called “currywurst” in Germany, brings home the global impact of what are generically called curries.

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