Saturday, July 22, 2017

Jürgen Osterhammel's enormous global history of the 19th century, read by me, breezily discussed here

Jürgen Osterhammel is a German historian at the University of Konstanz, a specialist in Chinese history and globalization.  His 2009 The Transformation of the World: A Global History of the Nineteenth Century is a massive synthesis of the state of the field – the fields, history and the social sciences – on every big topic: cities, frontiers, imperial systems, etc.  Those are chapter titles.  The book is 1,500 pages in German.  Princeton published it in 2014, in the heroic translation of Patrick Camiller, in a mere 1,167 pages, not by omitting anything but by making the pages irritatingly large.

The bibliography and notes are of course enormous.  I may not quote from the book, which is written crisply enough but is not exactly written in the prose of Gibbon, but I am tempted to quote the bibliography.  It is, on its own, full of riches.

Osterhammel is an expert on China, and is himself German, and here we see much of the value of this particular massive history: as much attention as Great Britain and the United States get, inevitably, neither nation is the center of the history.  There are always competing centers.  I found this, by itself, informative.  If things are organized a certain way in the United States – and I likely knew that they were – they were organized some other way entirely in Qing China, Meiji Japan, and the Dutch East Indies.

Ironically, Princeton UP has published the book in a series titled “America in the World.”  Osterhammel has said that he barely knew anything about U.S. history before conceiving this book.  I would never have guessed.  His claim may be highly relative.

Osterhammel organizes the book in a German fashion.  My impression is that in the U.S., it is thought to be essential that the argument of a book be put up front, maybe even first.  Here is the surprising claim I am making.  Here is why you should keep reading.  Osterhammel begins with a hundred pages of methodology and definitions.  I am not sure he even has much of an argument, except that many particular claims look different in a global context, and many older global claims fall apart upon comparative inspection.  He just assumes that his book is worth reading.

Actually, this book may not be worth reading, exactly, not as such.  It is perhaps foolishness to read it through, although in fairness to myself I have been chipping away at it since 2014.  Any individual section can be read on its own.  Which sections would I particularly recommend to readers most interested in literature?  “V. Living Standards: Risk and Security in Material Life,” “VI. Cities: European Models and Worldwide Creativity,” and maybe “XVI. Knowledge: Growth, Concentration, Distribution.”  These fill in a massive amount of context around many 19th century novels.  I mean, the discussion of monetary policy, gold and silver standards, is exactly as fascinating in Osterhammel as in anyone else’s account, but thankfully has little to do with any novel anyone ever wrote that is worth reading.

The chapter on “Cities” I find almost baffling.  Every claim has to be tested against every major city, and heck if that is not what he does.  How did he keep track of it all?  How did he research it?  That bibliography.

Anyways, what a book.  Between the Sante and Osterhammel books I have been cramming myself with information.  Will I remember any of it, any at all?  Who knows.

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