Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Train Reading - preliminary musings on Furtado's Histories of Nations

One of my Christmas presents was Peter Furtado (ed) Histories of Nations: how their identities were forged (Thames & Hudson, compact edition 2017). In the book, 28 historians and writers provide their own short perspectives (around 3,000 words) of the history of their own nations with a short introduction by Furtdado. The contributors were asked  “to step outside their usual frames of reference and write about how history is understood in the culture of their homelands at large,”

Jerry Brotton's 2012 review on the BBC's Historyextra provides a good overview of the book, concluding
Overall this is a collection that goes too far (why so many European nations?) and yet not far enough (why so few east Asian or African ones, why not every single nation?). The writing is not consistently good enough to make it more than an intriguing curiosity.
I can see why he reached that conclusion, the standard of writing does vary, but its also a little unfair. Even as an intriguing curiosity it's worth reading, but there is more to the book than that.

To begin with, the book reminds us of just how much the frames within which we think and write are determined by culture and history. As analysts or historians we do try to break out of this, but it's remarkably difficult because we cannot always see are own blinkers. It reminds us, too, about the fragility of national identities, about the way that history is put to the service of creating or preserving identity.

Some of the writers are very frank. On India, writer and journalist Mihir Bose suggests that India's problem is that it has never existed in an historical sense! It is "the civilization with no home-grown history". As I read this piece, I thought that it was a pity the Indian Empire broke up rather than transforming as it might have into a new nation. That, I thought, was one price of the Second World war.

As I read, I found that the multiple stories were causing subtle shifts in my own perceptions. I am reasonably well read, but there was material and perceptions that were new to me.

I could wish the book had more African material. Outside Egypt, Ghana is the only country covered on that continent, and Egypt's history is not African. I think that a similar book focused on the national history and historiography of African countries might provide some real insights - and correctives.

Overall, I thought that while the book is flawed, it is actually a very interesting work and well worth a read.


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