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Thursday, August 16, 2012

“Africa: A Biography of the Continent”, by John Reader


801 pages, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., ISBN-13: 978-0679409793

It is rare indeed to find a book about history that is so gripping. The writer indeed does a wonderful job in keeping you amused and surprised. He mixes very diverse topics such as linguistics, weather, religion, colonialism, economics, geography and a thousand more, into a single narrative, with such vitality and coherence, that you wonder how come there are such a few mainstream works on such a fascinating epic history. If you know nothing about, or just a few details of African History, after finish reading this book you will feel like an expert, but more important than that, the writer most probably will sow in you a feeling of love for that continent a thirst to know more.

Considering the magnitude of his undertaking, Mr. Reader did a superb job of covering his subject in nearly every aspect possible. Almost anyone with an interest in geology, geography, anthropology, ancient and recent history, political science or ethnography will find this book of interest in some aspect. Personally I enjoyed the first half of the volume more than the last half, as the later chapters are a depressing compendium of the inhumanity of mankind to its brethren. The unfortunate effects of foreign involvement in African affairs have a long history, and Mr. Reader dealt with the subject fully and fairly; neither did he entirely absolve native African involvement in the down fall of some of its own cultures. The author seems to have a feel for the complexity of the events that occurred through time and of the repercussions – the almost domino effect – of actions and decisions made, often times outside of Continental Africa itself (a case of 20-20 hindsight, perhaps).

This is a huge book, but unlike most others, I was sorry to see it end. This is due to Reader's intelligent and clear writing style. He conveys an enormous amount of information in chapters which are usually no more than 10 pages. Those looking for a conventional history will be a bit puzzled at first. Reader spends more time talking about the prehistory of Africa and the development of Homo Sapiens in general than he does about 20th century African events. Nevertheless, the episodes he chooses to focus on are memorable. His description of the slave trade and its effect on the African continent is notable both for its horror and for the unbiased eye he casts on both the Europeans and Africans involved in perpetuating it. Reader draws upon a huge number of sources for the book (the bibliography is huge) and synthesizes them into a lucid narrative, despite the gaps and omissions (nothing much on North Africa, for example). He is especially opinionated about the West's stereotypical image of Africa as a verdant, unspoiled land. Still, he presents a wide variety of information drawn from his voluminous reading, and he always identifies speculation as speculation.

It is impossible in such a short space to do justice to a book that basically defies description. While it focuses on Africa, Reader's book deals with so many subjects, and does it so well, that it will leave you almost breathless.

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