“What I Read Over Summer Vacation” (part one?)

I’ve been on something of a tear through my to-read pile in search of… well, I’m not entirely sure some days. A lot of what’s in that stack (conceptually, it’s a stack, a pile, a shelf, whatever. In practical terms, it’s scattered around my office and there’s a branch of it at home.) is there because of my teaching, looking for new books to assign, or new work that might refresh/change my understanding of something which I teach about.

Only one of the books has been about Japan: Unbinding The Pillow Book: The Many Lives of a Japanese ClassicBook by Gergana Ivanova. This is one of a new genre of works – well, new to me, anyway – that I really like: histories of the changing reception and understanding of a work over time. It’s kind of a literary historiography, and for certain works, knowing how those shifts happen really can help immensely in understanding why something’s important. I’ve assigned a couple of the Princeton Lives of Great Religious Books in my South Asian survey – it’s one of my few courses that takes a rocks-to-rockets approach, so connecting the classics to modern reception is a great way of spanning the whole territory – and I thought this one might work for my similarly broad Japanese Women’s History course. In the end, I don’t think I’d assign it, though I certainly got a lot out of it, which will affect the way I talk about it as a source, at least. And as a quick introduction to Edo-era literary publishing and genres, it covers a lot of interesting ground.

China - 6c Northern Western Wei - Acrobat Tomb Figure
I’m always looking for ways to broaden my Historiography course, too: it’s very US-centric, because the vast majority of our graduate students are focused on, or at least mostly trained in, US history, though I do assign Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys which covers some fascinating ground and basic theory. So I had some hope for The Letter to Ren An and Sima Qian’s Legacy, something I picked up at ASPAC a few years back, I think. It’s not long, but it should have been either shorter or longer… it’s a fascinating project, actually, an edited volume that takes an intense look at the provenance, authorship, and historical meaning of a short, but culturally important, document, though philological, historical, historiographical, biographical, and political lenses. But it’s repetitive, because each scholar has to describe the letter, context, and arguments in their own way, and they do; it’s also so focused on the authorship question that the “Legacy” part of the title is largely implicit, which I found quite disappointing. The authorship question itself is fascinating, and as a window into the immense challenges of talking clearly or even confidently about ancient texts and people, it’s first-rate. (If you’re the kind of person who assigns chapters instead of whole books, you could easily get away with picking almost any of them, because they all address each other’s arguments… like I said, repetitive)

Perhaps most disappointing, in terms of syllabus construction, is the last two books I just read, Timothy May’s The Mongol Conquests in World History (2012) and Valerie Hansen’s The Silk Road: A New History with Documents (2017, revised from her 2012 edition). Not that Hansen’s book was a disappointment: I learned a great deal, and she’s doing her usual thing of drawing on concrete details to sketch out real lives, and her final conclusion is immensely thoughtful (spoiler: the Silk Road was mostly about ideas and skills, mostly transmitted by religious pilgrims and refugee migrations, and mostly not about stuff except when governments like China threw enough resources into garrisoning strongholds to provide the economic stimulus to move large quantities). It’s just that she spends so much time and energy telling the reader the sometimes exciting stories of how the documents were found, and how the stuff was found, and how they’ve been fit into the historiography, and focusing on findsites (a term I didn’t know until I read this book) by organizing the story around specific sites, only roughly chronologically sequenced, that I fear only an extended close reading with students would be pedagogically sound, and when I’m looking for a supplemental reading in World History, that’s not really what’s going to work. I could see making graduate students read it, especially in a methods class, but the disjunction between the historiography-centric chapters and the “let’s assign these to beginning students” questions attached to the documents (which are mostly too short to be really fun for me, but then I assign long stuff) just doesn’t work. But at least she’s making a case, and doing it in an evidence-centered way; it’s good historical work, and even if you don’t like her conclusions, you can’t say she doesn’t show her work.

On the other hand…. May’s attempt to make “the Chinggis Exchange” a thing is legitimately disappointing as a work of history. While Hansen’s attention to provenance and interpretation might be excessive, May’s is nearly non-existent. Except for an early swipe at the Marco Polo doubters (more on that below), the only times May makes anything resembling a cautionary note regarding sources is when they say something bad about the Mongols; otherwise it’s just a straight narrative, plus some topical chapters that are also basically narratives around the idea of the Mongols as positive influences across Eurasia. I had flashbacks to reading Guzman’s argument about barbarians as positive forces in world history but with less historical foundation: May has a way of trying to track Mongol “legacies” through speculative chains of causation that remind me of sophomoric attempts to write final exam essays. Aside from a greater appreciation for the political fractiousness of Mongol rule, I feel like I learned very little, and couldn’t responsibly present this work to students. You could learn more about Mongols as world historical actors from Chapter 4 of Rachel Laudan’s Cuisine and Empire than from this book; in fact, a lot of what is actually presented by Laudan was absent from May’s storytelling.

The Marco Polo problem is still real, though Hansen repeats in this book her concession that she believes Polo’s story, to the extent that we have to believe something, though it’s also clear that she considers it highly unreliable. Unfortunately, Hansen’s engagement with the Mongol period of the Silk Road is almost entirely limited to discussing traveler narratives – Polo, William of Rubruck, John of Plano Carpini, ibn Battuta, Rabban Sauma – though her discussion follows the historiographical/critical vein she established in the other chapters, which does at least put Polo into perspective. But it’s not clear to what extent Hansen’s version of the Silk Road, mostly political and intellectual connections, with weaker economic activity along the land routes than the sea routes (which she acknowledges, but spends very little time explaining), conflicts with May’s maximal reading of the Mongols as economic miracle-workers (and ignoring the sea routes, in the context of economics), because the discussion is so different from her earlier chapters, and her conclusion is somewhat cagey, chronologically.

Still, if I had to assign one of them, I’d definitely pick Hansen for World History, and maybe for Historiography as well.

How’s your summer reading going?

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for the Ivanova reference. I will be using Pillow Book in Rice paddies in the Fall, so I will have to check it out.

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