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Tuesday, February 21, 2012


Vanished Kingdoms: The Rise and Fall of States and Nations
by Norman Davies
p. 2012
Viking Adult

  I was excited to receive this book as a birthday gift.  Most of the books I read are acquired because they are cheap, and since Vanished Kingdoms was published last month and is currently the #4 top seller in the Amazon/Books/History/Europe/Western Category, it was not a book I would normally purchase for myself.

  However, it's a sad fact that if you want to render opinions about books etc, you are better served by reviewing a book that people are reading.  The odds of a critic deriving an audience by making an unpopular thing popular are far better then doing the opposite.

 In a very real sense, the most interesting thing about Vanished Kingdoms to me is it's status as a "best speaker" in it's specific sub category.  That category: Books/History/Europe/Western is solid. It's not Books/History/Americas/United States/Civil War solid, but close.

  The first critical observation I would make is simply that Amazon has it's cataloged in the wrong place.  This is a book specifically about ALL OF EUROPE, it shouldn't be in "Western" since a main component of the book has to do with the relationship between Western scholars and Eastern countries.  It also spans from Ancient to Modern times, arguably requiring classification in Books/History/Ancient, etc.

 Norman Davies is what Wikipedia calls, "a leading English historian of Welsh descent."  He studied under A.J.P. Taylor who would probably be called a "popular Marxist historian of the mid to late 20th century."  Davies made his bones in Polish area studies, his two volume history of Poland, God's Playground, is from 2005 and it's fair to say with Vanished Kingdoms he's making a kind of Audience size break out from academic press (God's Playground is on Columbia University Press) to the mainstream media- Vanished Kingdom's is published by Viking Press.

  Davies has decidedly academic wrotes, but in terms of concept and scope this book most reminded me of Geert Mak's In Europe.  Unlike Davies, Mak is a journalist, but both books take a "popular" approach to a vast subject involving all of Europe.

  An interesting question for me when I read Vanished Kingdoms, is how a book like this- over 750 pages end-to-end can even exist as a popular work of non-fiction.  My sense is it's a calcuated attempt by a major publishing house (Penguin) to bring Authors out of the academic- mostly British- academy and popularize their work.  Specifically, I noted that in his Acknowledgments, buried at page 790, he says, "The project was launched by Will Sullkin,..but came to fruition through the combined efforts of my agent, Davide Godwin, and of my literary adviser, fellow Boltonian and publishing director of Allen Lane, the indefatigable Stuart Proffitt."

  Allen Lane has also published books by Niall Ferguson and Naomi Klein- clearly they are concerned with publishing hits, within their sphere of serious, academically based non-fiction.  That puts them in a pretty enviable position vis a vis the academia houses- since they can essentially cherry pick on reputation establishing material.  It's like a record label picking a band after they already put out two or three LP's.

  Vanished Kingdoms is not exactly what I would call, "magisterial" but it is pretty solid- especially in light of the sales attention- Davies perspective is revealed in the introduction, where he addresses the meaning of the title "Vanished Kingdoms" and his themes:

  Historians usually focus their attention on the past of countries that still exist, writing hundreds and thousands of books on British history, French history, German history, Russian history, American history, Chinese history, Indian history, Brazillian history or whatever.  Whether consciously or not, they are seeking the roots of the present thereby putting themselves in danger of reading history backwards...
  Our mental maps are thus inevitably deformed.  Our brains can only form a picture from the data that circulates at any given time and the available data is created by present-day powers, by prevailing fashion and accepted wisdom.  Partial knowledge becomes ever more partial, and ignorance becomes self-perpetuating.

  Those two paragraphs one me over, and the next 15 chapters, each detailing a vanished Kingdom/State in three different ways:

 1.  Personal observation of the present of that place- like a historical travelogue.
 2.  Discussion of the history of that vanished state.
 3.  Discussion of the present situation in that state.

 The "states and nations" at issue are:  Tolosa (modern France/Spain), Alt Clud (modern UK), Burgundia (Western Europe), Aragon (Spain/Italy/France), Litva (Poland/Lithuania/Byelorussia), Byzantion, Borussia (Germany/Poland), Sabaudia (France/Italy/Switzerland), Galacia (Eastern Europe), Etruria (Italy), Rosenau (Germany), Tsernagora (Montenegro), Rusyn (Eastern Europe), Eire (Ireland), CCCP (USSR)

  The more I look at the format, the more I feel a BBC documentary coming on- especially since the travel element is written into the book.  At the end of the place specific chapters, Davies offers a summary where he classifies four different ways that states and nations vanish: implosion, conquest, merger, liquidation and 'infant mortality.'  The popular audience that is the target of Vanished Kingdoms is not unduly burdened with specialist jargon- the conclusion is maybe 20 pages of a 700 page book.

  Vanished Kingdoms is at it's best in the chapters dealing with subjects within Davies wheelhouse (all of the Chapters relating to Poland and vicinity (Litva, Galacia, Ruysn), Chapters about the geographical area of the United Kingdom, and category creators like Aragon and Sabaudia.  I was more interested in the exotic locations and less in the more familiar subjects- for me chapters on Ireland and the USSR hold less appeal then places I'd never heard of or read about before.   However, I'm sure when you look at the popular appeal, you get more readers by doing a chapter on Ireland then Litva.

 In fact, it seems appropriate to consider the limited sales appeal of a magisterial two volume history of Poland when considering why this book was written. I'm glad it was written.  For every person who buys this book, there is at least a one in two chance that they will actually read it, rather then an airport novel or Harry Potter book.  That can't be a bad thing.

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