15 July 2017

Mind Maps of the Past & Present

The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past

History is a construct, a matter of perception; it's also personal and fixed firmly in our particular present. And, according to most of the reviews which I've read, the same seems to apply to people's perceptions of the merits and faults of this book.

I found it entertaining, engaging, and effortlessly readable - but then I am intrigued by works which ruminate or pontificate on 'how' and 'why' we 'do' history. It reads rather like having a chat with your favourite college professor (perhaps after you've finished their particular course) in the relaxed atmosphere of a bar given the lightness, informality, and humour of the author's tone; and in that sense it is a reflective book which doesn't seem surprising when you understand the book is derived from a series of (somewhat valedictory) lectures. I found it a thought provoking work, even if I didn't wholly agree or share in all of its theses. It meanders through a vast number of (rather self-conscious) metaphors to make many of its points and returns to some of them a little too often to labour certain aspects, which at the end - in seeking to come full circle - I felt left the book feeling somewhat inconclusive, but then that too seemed to be the overarching point: that history is essentially unknowable, or, to put it another way, history is a construct, a matter of perception ...

As a historian presently exploring my own approach, I have to confess, I am rather drawn to this kind of academic navel gazing. Hence I've no doubt I shall at some point return to The Landscape of History for a repeat reading.

On History
by Eric Hobsbawm
(Abacus, 2008)

Make no mistake. This is a heavy-weight set of meditations on historiography. Thoughtful and thought-provoking, but in parts it is highly dense and heavy going. Some years ago now I did my first degree in a distinctly Marxist Anthropology Dept., and so I was surprised (and somewhat startled!) to find I could follow and found the chapters on Marx particularly illuminating. Likewise, I found the later chapters on the 'Annales', History from Below, counterfactuals, and, post-modernism/identity history all made very fruitful reading. Hobsbawm is widely regarded as a formidable historian, and, as a first taster, in reading this book I can well see why!  

Onwards to his The Age of Empire, 1875-1914 and his Nations and Nationalism since 1780 ... I may be some time.

For a more comprehensive overview of Hobsbawm and his works this is an interesting article: reflecting upon Hobsbawm's Long Century by Joseph Fronczak (June 2017)

Making History, Drawing Territory: British Mapping in India, c.1756-1905
by Ian J. Barrow
(Oxford University Press, 2004)

This book describes itself as: "A unique study of British possession and territorial legitimacy in India as represented by colonial maps, this book focuses on various strategies used by map-makers and surveyors to embed a past into their narratives, and concludes that maps were used both to demonstrate a history of territory and, importantly, to justify the possession of land in colonial times in the Indian subcontinent."

An interesting and curious read. Making History, Drawing Territory covers a remarkable amount of ground (excuse the pun) for such a slim book, yet tends to spend more time saying what it's going to say rather than actually saying it! The author does seem very aware that he is writing in the shadow of several rather more substantial works in this field, most notably Matthew Edney's excellent Mapping an Empire (University of Chicago Press, 1999), yet most interestingly Barrow strives to shift the hitherto predominant focus of academic enquiry in this field away from the purely scientific to consider the more social aspects of analysis and interpretation, and thus opens up a number of intriguing questions which perhaps a longer and more in-depth examination might have made for a more rounded and satisfying work - instead it reads rather like a set of five loosely connected essays introducing similar themes, in this sense it's an excellent 'primer' text. A worthwhile and engaging read nonetheless. Incorporating a rich array of primary and secondary sources, as well as fold-out reproductions of many maps, I would certainly very much recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of cartography, British imperialism, and the trigonometrical survey of India.  

 My reviews for The LSE Review of Books


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