Some books are next to impossible to review. Silk Roads is one: encyclopedic in scope and structure, made up of several dozen short essays by almost as many different authors, each lavishly illustrated with indescribable photos of objects and places.
There is, or at least was, a family style restaurant in Queens, a not-always fashionable part of New York, grandiosely styled “The Uzbekistan Culture Center”. The owner, a former pop star on Uzbek national radio, served his friends, neighbors and curious visitors like ourselves pilafs and kebabs with a mixture of post-Soviet sadness, oriental forbearance and a twinkle of raffish self-assurance.
He could have stepped right off the pages of Of Strangers and Bees.
It is tempting to label Rollan Seisenbayev’s The Dead Wander in the Desert as an early example of what has now been come to be known as “cli-fi” (“climate fiction”): the book’s central motif, after all, is the human-engineered collapse of the Aral Sea.
The image of Central Asia in the minds of many in the West is that of an exotic, distant land ruled by evil despots—its entrenched culture of corruption and repression both eternal and intractable. However, in Dictators without borders: Power and Money in Central Asia, academics Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw aim to refresh and reframe our understanding of the region.
Humanism, secularism, pluralism: these were the spirit of the age in the exchange system known as the Mongol Empire. So Roxann Prazniak finds in Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art. Prazniak’s starting place is art history, but her study of artistic exchange opens out into a wide view of the intellectual and cultural world under Mongol globalization in the 13th century.
Predicting the global future is never easy. Even the most knowledgeable and fair-minded observers of geopolitics frequently miss the mark. After the First World War, the German historian Oswald Spengler predicted the decline of the West. In 1964, the American political philosopher James Burnham opined that the West was committing suicide. In 1987, just a few years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, Yale’s Paul Kennedy warned that the US would likely suffer from imperial overstretch in its struggle with Soviet-led communism.
History by way of “things” has itself become a “thing”. Archaeologists, of course, always did history this way. But they would focus on, usually, assemblages of objects, rather individual pieces. While perhaps not the first—nothing is ever the first—the BBC and the British Museum’s A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor popularized the concept.