The Books of 2016, #14: The Silk Roads: A New History of the World, by Peter Frankopan

the-silk-roadsPROS:

  • For a non-academic history, covers a topic/region that is severely under-represented in western literature, particularly when weighed against its historical importance.
  • Well-written; not the kind of writing that inspires dreams of becoming an author one’s self, but, for a history book, flowing and engaging enough to not put the reader to sleep.
  • Situates what was going on on either end of the area in great detail so the reader can understand why the Silk Roads were particularly important at those points in time.

CONS:

  • Is more of a history of Central Asia than it is of the Silk Roads per se; fails to really explain that there is controversy regarding whether or not a recognized “Silk Road” ever existed; some historians believe that the water routes through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea carrying the spice trade were always more important to the civilizations on either end than the Silk Roads were. I buy the author’s argument that the Silk Roads were a very important transmission route for valuable materials as well as, later, ideas and new knowledge, but would’ve liked to read more about the opposing opinions that are out there.
  • Goes overboard on situational detail at times; there are pretty detailed sections on, say, the progress of the German invasion of Russia in World War 2 or the development of religions in the Middle East that the author doesn’t really tie to Central Asia and/or the Silk Roads except in the most vague “this  big event happened sorta close to the area we’re concerned with so here’s 100 pages on it” kind of way.
  • Related to the point above, I found the book not quite focused enough on the topic. I understood going in that it’s a generalist history of the topic, but it could’ve presumed a bit more knowledge on the more well-known topics that occurred around the periphery of the Silk Roads and focused more on those events impact ON the area in question or how the area affected those events. There’s a weird disconnect in his writing that doesn’t tie his long digressions on, say, how religion developed in ancient Palestine to how the Silk Roads impacted that development or helped transmit it to other areas.

IN SUMMARY:

It’s a good book. I feel it either could’ve been shorter, via cutting down the reams of info that are outside of the topic and could be assumed as already understood on behalf of the reader, or the same length but with a tighter focus on the area of study and/or with arguments presented against those who believe the Silk Roads importance is overstated to begin with. Still, given the paucity of good generalist writing on Central Asian history in general, it’s a great starter for gaining an understanding of that region.

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