Acquisitions

James Brown. Anzac's Long Shadow: The Cost of Our National Obsession. Collingwood: Redback, 2014. Brown has garnered a lot of attention recently for his critique of the Anzac myth. What is perhaps most interesting about his position is that he isn't coming at the question from a historical or even political position: his argument is that Australia's veneration of the diggers of 1915 is actually bad for the diggers of 2014. We see the conflicts we send our soldiers to fight in today through our (mis)understanding of wars they fought in decades ago; we spend more money on commemorating the Gallipoli dead, with the ritual invocation of 'never again', than we do on making sure our still-living soldiers are equipped physically and mentally for combat. We honour the armed forces so much that we can no longer criticise them. So not really history, as such; but essential reading as we prepare to embark on four years of centenaries.

David Christian. Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press, 2011. As a historian with a background in astrophysics, I'm intrigued by a history book which starts with the Big Bang and has an index entry for 'cosmic background radiation (CBR)'. But I'm also a bit wary. How does it help me as a historian to understand how galaxies evolve? The biological and even geological parts of big history, sure, in an Annales kind of way; but if I'd wanted to do bad physics I would have stayed a bad physicist. Still, there's always value in looking at history from a different perspective.

Richard J. Evans. Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History. London: Little, Brown, 2014. Evans would not appear to be a huge fan of counterfactuals, which makes you wonder why he bothered to write a whole book about them -- I mean, it's not like they're in any danger of taking over the historical world. But it's precisely that it comes from a sceptic, but I think a fair-minded one, that will make this worth reading. For one thing, there are are lot of really bad counterfactuals around: Evans takes a hard look at Dominic Sandbrook's rather silly essays, as well as Niall Ferguson's rather schizophrenic approach of laying out a very sober argument for the utility of counterfactuals in his Virtual History collection, which he then rounds off with an again very silly conclusion linking all the chapters together in one big narrative counterfactual history that makes no sense and undermines his pleas that counterfactuals are a worthwhile historical tool and should be taken seriously.

Tom Lawson. The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania. London and New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014. What makes this so interesting is that Lawson is writing not from the Australian perspective but the British one; and not as a British historian but as a genocide historian. So he's not one of the usual combatants in the history wars. He argues that Britain should be viewed as a post-genocidal state for causing the extermination of the Tasmanian Aborigines in the 1820s and 1830s -- not that Australia itself has come to terms with this label (see below).

Richard Ned Lebow. Archduke Franz Ferdinand Lives! A World without World War I. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Continuing on with the counterfactual theme. I'm not yet sure whether this is sensible or silly. On the one hand, by positing a 'best plausible' and a 'worst plausible' world after Franz Ferdinand's non-assassination, Lebow avoids the trap of simply presenting a single version of what might have been, which Sandbrook, Ferguson and so many others have fallen into. That's pointless; instead we should try to Monte Carlo or more realistically scenario plan the possibilities. Ditto for the equally common practice of writing counterfactuals as simple narratives. This is fun but it is not informative. A good counterfactual history needs to be written from our perspective, not that of our non-existent counterparts. So Lebow gets these things right. But then he goes and repeatedly commits another cardinal error, which is to have individuals after the turning point leading very similar lives or having very similar characteristics to their real counterparts. For example, he suggests that in his 'best plausible' world, Isaac Asimov would have remained in Russia instead of emigrating to the United States. That is plausible: no war, the Russian Empire survives, there is no wave of emigration due to civil war and communism. But he then has 'Isaak Ozimov' leading much the same life as he did in reality, becoming a hugely prolific writer on a wide array of topics but who is best known for his science fiction novels about robots and about a galactic empire. True, these aren't simply the Robots and Foundation novels with the serial numbers filed off; Lebow does change them in interesting ways to make them commentaries on authoritarianism and anti-Semitism in Russia and elsewhere. But so much of life depends on chance that making even small changes can lead to very different outcomes; and that goes many times over for counterfactual history. In Asimov's case, for example, it's well known (at least in his own retelling, which of course may not be trustworthy) that he came up with the idea to write his first Foundation story by randomly picking a page from Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe and seeing an illustration of a sentry, which by a chain of association led him to the idea of a galactic empire. It wasn't inherent in Asimov's DNA or his personality; and certainly not his cultural background. Lebow may convince me otherwise, but I'm prepared for disappointment.

Henry Reynolds. Forgotten War. Sydney: NewSouth, 2013. Reynolds makes the case that the white dispossession of the Aborigines who lived in Australia first amounted to a war, and should be recognised as such. This war has been not so much forgotten as denied.

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2 thoughts on “Acquisitions

  1. Narmitaj

    I imagine you have heard of it, but I searched your site as best I could and don't see that you've mentioned a new book I saw a Sunday Times review of today, ie Jerry White, Zeppelin Nights: London in the First World War, published, according to Amazon, on 1 May. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Zeppelin-Nights-London-First-World/dp/1847921655

    That review is behind a paywall: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/culture/books/non_fiction/article1405291.ece but here's a Guardian review too: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/apr/23/zeppelin-nights-london-first-world-war-jerry-white-review

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