Large encyclopaedias linked to online subscription websites which are continually updated seem fashionable today, whether in the high powered form of the Dictionary of National Biography in the UK or more commercialised enterprises like Wiley-Blackwell’s International Encyclopaedia of Revolution and Protest.
I received the invitation to review this book during the same week – 16-20 November 2009 – that over 1,000 emails to and from climate scientists in the Climatic Research Unit at my university found their way into the public domain.
Most of us who have tried to write of time and place on a large scale resort to a broad framework of ideas, punctuated by an example or two from the literature or even from our own experience. As in his first edition, Donald Hughes does it differently: a series of footprints rather than a superhighway, as he puts it.
For readers like this reviewer, who do not read Germany fluently, the translation of Joachim Radkau’s Nature and Power: A Global History of the Environment is a major event. This is probably the best available overview of the changing human relationship with the biosphere: a subject whose historiographical and political significance is becoming more and more evident.
The history of nakedness deserves a serious history. For organised nudism or ‘naturism’ was a conscious movement initiated by Europeans at the end of the 19th century that has exerted a significant influence over society and politics in the wider world. This book is not that serious academic history. In one respect its aim is much more ambitious.
In 2001, Frederick Cooper wrote that ‘globalization talk is influential – and deeply misleading – for assuming coherence and direction instead of probing causes and processes’.(1) Burbank and Cooper heed this warning and focus very clearly and ably on the causes and processes of global empire building in this new book.
Those disinclined to judge their book by its cover will be pleased to discover that the image adorning the latest volume in the Oxford History of the British Empire (OHBE) series bears little relation to its contents. Showing the famous long bar at the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, it presents the imperial British in exemplary (if not stereotypical) terms.
This book was launched with great fanfare, a high number of editorial reviews from prominent academics, interviews, invited talks, web commentaries, and reviews in the mainstream media, including the Guardian, New Statesman, New York Times, The Scotsman, Economist, and Foreign Affairs.
The writing of history – any history – is shaped by the intellectual environment in which it is written, and by the preoccupations of its writers. As Christopher Tyerman acknowledges in his prefatory remarks, ‘writing history is not a neutral revelation but a malleable, personal, contingent, cultural activity’ (p. xi).
The way we evaluate Western civilization is deeply influenced by our political views.