On reading a giant book in four hours

Jane Burbank’s and Frederick Cooper’s Empires in World History: Power and the Politics of Difference is, without a doubt, a giant book. I say this not necessarily because of its 459 pages, but also because of the sheer size of these pages: even though, technically, my copy is a paperback, I would classify it more as a brick. Indeed, if I were a fan of bad puns (- and I must be, otherwise this sentence would stop here), I would say that this book is like its topic: imperial, in size and in scope.

Fortunately, it is also an eminently readable book, combining an interesting key insight with a survey of world history spanning, approximately, the last 2,500 years. Its topic, made clear in the title, is a survey overview of the different ways in which Empires utilized differences (in wealth and power, rank and glory among their subjects; in geographical and temporal ways; in economic and social formations; in war and peace; in personalized and formalized relations, etc.) to uphold the power of a ruling elite – city, bureaucracy, emperor, and however one wants to classify the ruling elites of the ‘development’ paradigm. A number of things would need to be emphasized, and a number of characteristics would have to be pointed out if this were a discussion of the content of the book. Since it is not, I am simply going to reiterate that I like this book very much, wish I had time to read it entirely, and derived a number of interesting insights from the discussion of the difference between nation-states and imperial structures – specifically since my dissertational topic will probably be the emergence of what I think is a third, parallel structure hinted at in the very last paragraphs of the book: networks, in this case: Al-Queda.

But this post is ultimately not a discussion of the book, but rather an exercise in reading strategies. How to go about reading a giant book in a meager four hours? It can be inferred from the above paragraphs that I have read at least the very first and the last chapter. In fact, I chose to read the first two and the last two chapters, and skim chapter four, on the Mongol empire. That makes 109 pages read, as well as 24 skimmed, which took me 3 hours and 10 minutes, stopwatched – and the rest is spent writing this. I am usually a slow reader, specifically when a book is interesting, which this one very much is; but on the other hand, many features of the Roman (though not the Chinese) empire are fairly known to me, as are postcolonial liberation movements, so these parts were also more or less skimmed.

Reasons for this approach? The first chapter, of course, provides rough outlines of all subsequent chapters, and the last one contains wrap-ups and conclusions. Reading the second chapter is of specific interest in this case because, as the text points out, Rome and China are the templates for imperial government; in Rome’s case, Europe (and then Euro-America) has been obsessed with recreating it from Charlemagne to Hitler; and in China’s case, the astounding continuity of its imperial tradition stretches even to today, as the reintegration of Hong Kong and the ‘capitalism with Chinese characteristics’ (as David Harvey calls it) are classical imperial moves. Not that I got all of that out of the table of contents, but this was a very satisfying chapter. Reading chapter 13 I chose because it might, I thought, embed the findings in the conclusion; but it turned out to give more than that: I had never seen developmental aid and the re-purchase of Hong Kong within a framework like this. (Though its imperial aspects are, of course, not lost on Marxist analyses.) Skimming chapter 4, finally, resulted from a personal interest of mine: I am fascinated by postmodern concepts of nomadism, and was hoping to see these played out in imperial differential fields.

One last remark, since I have a reputation for it. What can be derived from the table of contents are these characteristics of the book:
1. That there is a theoretical chapter at the beginning; worth reading.
2. That some kind of importance will be given to simultaneously presenting China and Rome.
3. That the book will lead up to a history of the present (Ch. 13, 14) in its conclusion.
4. That the focus of the book is, to an overwhelming degree, on the standard set of empires usually treated in high school history classes, and the Euro-American notion of capital-H History. (My high school textbook included Temudjin.)
5. That colonialism alone takes up no less than three chapters (10, 11, 12), and that hence the self-destruction of Europe is a centerpiece of the book. (Since I did not read these chapters, I cannot confirm this hypothesis.)
6. That the “citations” section says “Suggested Readings” implies a didactic approach. (Compare to that the back cover, par. 5, by Choice journal.)
7. The List of Illustrations, p. VII, tells me that, besides images of imperial rule(rs) (fig. 2.1 through 5.1), the harm done by imperial politics is also represented in the book (fig. 5.2, 6.3).
8. That maps are included (p. VIII and IX) suggests a standard approach to geographical aspects of imperial history, treating geography – certainly with good reasons – as the stage upon which historical action unfolds.)

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