Book Review: ‘A Concise Companion to History’ curated by Ulinka Rublack

concise companion to history ulinka rublack

The History Frenzy:

Last autumn, while sitting at my desk in Huzhou, I figured that I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree in history. The idea came with little warning, and stuck for a time. The issue is that I am curious. I want information. From fields of research, from extreme experiences, from personal interaction. The world is a near infinite bank of information, and luckily I exist as a creature with a somewhat adequate central nervous system with which I might process it; even have myself a prefrontal cortex. Might as well make use of the thing.

Soon, I curbed my enthusiasm for history, realizing that it was a mere interest rather than academic passion (and pursued an MA in English instead). But the itch remained, and to sate that curiosity, I picked up a copy of A Concise Companion to History. Curated by Ulinka Rublack, this book consists of several essays by preeminent specialists within sub-fields of historical research. The essays trace topics such as gender, trade, culture, commerce, and religion. The variety of voices make this collection a lively dip into the deep pools of history, and while I am glad I chose a different direction for my education, so too am I glad to have experienced these essays.

Scales on Our Eyes:

When looking at the past, it is easy to imagine that the narrative structure of our current society is much more of a tautology than it actually is. Modern concepts concerning notions such as gender, ethnicity and culture are demonstrated throughout this collection to be exactly that: modern concepts. And when trying to observe the past, one must realize this, must be able to remove the glazed over goggles of modern narratives in order to see where our constructs come from.

As such, I highly recommend the essays by Dorothy Ko (concerning gender) and Megan Vaughan (concerning culture). Both are adequate demonstrations of how novel some of our ways of thinking truly are. They point out that our modern scrambling for identities to hold on to is a much more conscious (and self-conscious) effort than it once was. That the concepts of culture and gender are even now quite amorphous, with common definitions of the terms being difficult to come by.

We Are All in This Together:

The book is a great way to surface for a few gasps of air. Swimming and contorting beneath the current political and sociological discourse can be fruitful, and is inherently needed for progress, but a remembrance of where we come from, and just how these issues have risen to places of import within the general social collective, is well advised. This Companion provides a chance of perspective for the dozen or so topics it tackles, clearing the field for a moment or two before letting the brawl resume. There is a lot of worth within these pages, and information of its ilk could go a long way to cooling the vitriol of modern debates, even if only be reminding the reader that the grandest narrative of them all is one in which we all are a part, in which we all have a common origin.

Rating: 5 out of 5