coffee table book · Non-Fiction

Review: Silk Roads (ed by Susan Whitfield).

Review: Silk Roads (ed by Susan Whitfield).

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Silk Roads is extraordinary in its scope. It is comprised of short essays from academic contributors. For the reader, this offers multiple perspectives and creates a book to dip into and savour.

There was no Silk Road. This is the first point made in the introduction. Silk Roads is a romanticised term used to describe the trade and interaction across Afro-Eurasia between roughly 200 BCD and 1400 CE. The term Silk Roads came into play during the Victorian Era.

What becomes clear from the earliest sections is that this period of trade and interaction between different civilizations challenges us to accept the limitations of one source of knowledge. This is seen especially clearly in one of the book’s early essays called Mapping The Silk Roads by Peter Whitfield. Ptolemy’s world map, described by Whitfield as a touchstone for modern European Cartography was later proved inaccurate and remapped using the knowledge of Chinese historians.

Rather than dividing the book by time period or country, the essays are divided by landscape – Steppe, Mountains And Highlands, Deserts And Oases, Rivers And Plains, and Seas And Skies. To keep the reader grounded, detailed and labelled maps are printed regularly throughout the book. 

As a newcomer to the subject, I couldn’t have asked for more. This is not an easy subject to begin studying because it encompasses not only a vast area of land and space of time, but it also takes into account conflicting and often absent histories. A recurring theme throughout the essays was that history is dominated by the written record, but that by looking more closely at cultures whose voices have been overwritten, a richer and more nuanced understanding can be gained. What worked for me as a novice to the subject was that the different essays touched on such different aspects that the book demonstrated the scope of this history.

Photography both historical and modern, of land and of artefacts, is included throughout the book. These visual references help situate the reader and to give a sense of what life might have looked like during different eras. From textiles to architecture, coins and pottery and implements of war, the clear and detailed images make it possible to browse the book as one might browse a museum exhibition. Full page photographs of different landscapes draw the reader in and make the geography real.

Silk Roads is a book to treasure. One to read slowly and return to regularly. It is visually stunning and the text and the photographs together build a rounded overview of the subject. The recurring themes about interaction between cultures and overlapping histories make us think about broader ethical issues and overall it is a beautiful and informative volume.

 

Thanks to Thames And Hudson for my copy of Silk Roads. Opinions my own.

Non-Fiction

Review: Irreplaceable: A History Of England in 100 Places by Philip Wilkinson

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Historic places represent inventions, achievements, and discoveries which have shaped the country and the world beyond. From the observatory in Greenwich to the Howarth parsonage – we are drawn to places where remarkable work has taken place. 

This book is the result of a campaign designed to promote and celebrate Britain’s historical places. The sites were chosen by 10 expert judges, including BBC Arts editor Will Gompertz and classicist and academic Mary Beard. The introduction from author and historian Bettany Hughes draws attention to the fact that, in conflict zones, similar sites have been destroyed, and suggests we should celebrate the places which represent our human experience. 

The book is divided into ten chapter which cover different disciplines. There is a chapter dedicated to places of Loss and Destruction, as well as one to Power, Protest and Progress. These chapters link back to the introduction and remind us that human progress should never be taken for granted. 

Each site is covered in a double-page spread. Photographs on one side are accompanied by information on the other. The location of each site is made clear, and the reasons for its significance are explored. I enjoyed the photography alone – Historic England holds one of the largest photographic archives in the country and many of the pictures in the book come from these archives. Reading the book made me aware of this invaluable resource which is just waiting to be explored.

I can see this being a popular coffee-table book – the entries have enough depth to be interesting but are short enough that people might enjoy flicking through. Prepare to draw up a bucket-list of places you would like to visit – the best part of reading the book as a person in the UK was knowing how many of these sites were just outside my doorstep. 

 

Thanks to Historic England and MidasPR for my copy of Irreplaceable: A History Of England in 100 Places. Opinions my own.