Of Time and Space… Three Christmas Presents

The Phantom Atlas – Edward Brook-Hitchings, hardback (London, 2016).

Lenin on the Train – Catherine Merridale, hardback (London, 2016).

Cartographies of Time: A History of the Timeline – Daniel Rosenberg & Anthony Grafton, paperback (New York, 2010).

I spent Christmas in New Zealand, a trip which focused my mind on both space and time. On Saturday the 17th December we lifted off at Heathrow and touched down in Auckland (via a brief stop in the weird and wonderful Seoul Airport) 26 hours later. There aren’t really any major countries more remote than New Zealand, and it was unusual to be one of the first people in the world to experience Christmas and New Year 2017. My partner and I travelled out with friends to a campground in Queenstown, and watched in the drizzle as fireworks shot into the sky heralded by the horn of a 105-year-old steamship – the T.S.S. Earnslaw – that still chugs back and forth across the lake to this day. My defining memory of that night, besides being 13 hours ahead of everyone back home in Britain, was the deafening boom of the explosions echoing around the hills and mountains that surround Queenstown…

It was for this reason that I didn’t end up getting most of my Christmas presents until mid January, so it’s taken me a bit of time to get caught up. I present here another multiple review article of three great books that my awesome friends got me for Christmas, in which the themes of space and time (and also, pleasantly, myth) are conveniently interlinked.

The Phantom Atlas – Edward Brooke-Hitching

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I’m sort of cheating here. I read this book along with the other two lavishly-illustrated ones about explorers a couple of weeks ago. But it didn’t quite fit into that review. This book, as its subtitle suggests, is an atlas made up entirely of non-existent places that – for one reason or another – people used to think were real – from the island of Hy-Brasil to the so-called ‘counterweight continent’ that people believed existed before Australia was properly mapped.

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California as an island (from this brilliant gallery of pictures from the book on the Guardian’s website).

Each map or geographical falsehood is present lavishly illustrated with a column or so of text briefly explaining the history of the error. It’s not too text-heavy, which is commendable, and full of gorgeous old maps – including ones illustrated with sea monsters. When small, non-existent islands are included on world maps, the book handily includes a blown up version of the part of the map containing the anomaly, which is particularly helpful.

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Hy-Brasil, a mythical island off the coast of Ireland (which had nothing to do with Brazil).

The book perfectly spins the idea of maps as reliable, useful tools on its head by showing the reader just how constructed they are. It includes maps drawn for personal profit or religious justification (including speculative maps of the actual location of the Garden of Eden). This reinforces the idea of maps as a tool of power – to map something was to know, and thus exercise control over, it.  I really enjoyed this book, which was smartly presented, packed with information but not overbearing, and gorgeously illustrated. I give it five stars ×××××.

NB: in the interests of some uniformity in ratings from this point forward, and because the WordPress symbols include a mind-boggling array of symbols but not stars, I am going to use multiplication signs (×) as ‘stars’ from now on.

Lenin on the Train – Catherine Merridale

For Christmas I helpfully supplied all of my friends with two Amazon wishlists – conveniently split into fiction and non-fiction – of books I wanted as a way to help them buy gifts/ensure I didn’t receive any books I already owned. My friend Giles completely disregarded this and asked me if I wanted a book called  Lenin on the Train. I had never heard of it, but I like Russian history and I like trains – what could go wrong?

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The lovely Allen Lane hardback front cover illustration.

Catherine Merridale’s book is beautifully written. Indeed, it is one of the best-written history books I have read in a long time (and I read a lot of them during my history PhD). It renders an incredibly complicated subject – great power politics during the First World War – in a refreshing and almost lyrical style. This makes it an excellent history book for people who normally wouldn’t read history or non-fiction more generally. Merridale charts the story of Vladimir Lenin (generally recognised as the father of the Soviet Union) as he traveled in the so-called ‘sealed train’ from Switzerland, through German territory to Sweden, and then on into Russia via Finland (then a client state of the Russian Empire) in 1917.

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Lenin’s Arrival at the Finland Station, Petrograd (St Petersburg), April 1917 painted in the 1930s by  M.G. Sokolov. In a classic example of Soviet ‘retconning’ Stalin (who was not on the train) has been added in behind Lenin.

Lenin’s return to Russia was, clandestinely, sponsored by the German state – seeking to destabilise its Russian foe, hopefully collapsing the Eastern Front of the War and freeing German forces up to concentrate on defeating Britain and France on the Western Front. Indeed, these great powers frequently appear in the narrative as much as Lenin himself. It was fascinating to read how the great revolutionary was profoundly frustrated by distance when, in February 1917, the Russian Revolution began happening without him. Russia’s workers (men and women) and soldiers managed to successfully topple the tsar and install an embryonic form of democracy whilst Lenin was still furiously writing diatribes against the ‘imperialist war’ in Switzerland. Merridale unsettles our conventional understandings of the Russian Revolution (even the singular term ‘revolution’ obscures the truth) and excellently describes the short-lived and much-harried Provisional Government and its attempts to retain and consolidate power prior to Lenin’s April 1917 return.

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Russians out on the streets during in February 1917. See source for more information about the February Revolution.

Knowing what came next, Lenin on the Train is an often tragic tale of Russia’s slide into autocracy, and Merridale draws a direct comparison with Western regime change efforts into the twentieth and twenty-first century to explain Russia’s contemporary condition. If this narrative is not always convincing, it is highly readable and well-researched. I blazed through this book and also give it the full five stars ×××××

Cartographies of Time – Daniel Rosenberg and Anthony Grafton

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Cover of the Hardback Edition (the same as the paperback version). Source.

At first glance, Cartographies of Time looks like another of those lavish coffee table books. However, it proved to be a lot meatier than that. The book is a history, visual and textual, of the evolution of the timeline. Much like Brooke-Hitching’s book on maps, the focus here is as much on the ‘cartographers’ and their intentions as it is upon the objective value of timelines as historical tools.

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Joseph Priestley’s ‘New Chart of History’ (1769) set the standard for timelines for centuries afterwards.

The glossy, thick pages are crammed with illustrations of weird and wonderful timelines, accompanied by a surprisingly detailed history of the way that humanity has understood the passage of time. Fascinating visual metaphors of time are considered, including statues, temples, and streams, as well as the varied impetuses behind different timelines – proving a noble’s lineage, making the Bible easier to understand, and so on. It charts the agonising battle of numerous ‘cartographers’ of time to balance accuracy with clear and engaging visualisation of data, a problem that continues to plague those who work with data to the present day. Unfortunately, as with the books about explorers that I reviewed a few weeks ago, the focus here is just on European and North American timelines, though the authors are explicit about their focus from the start.

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A much-repeated and incredibly beautiful DIY timeline originating in Poland but made famous in the c19th USA by Elizabeth Palmer Peabody. The system uses different colours in different combinations representing different historical phenomena, battles, births, deaths, and so on.

It was an odd experience reading this book. The content was very interesting. The illustrations were excellent but the large coffee-table format jarred with the amount of information that was included. Oversized books are always quite awkward to read (you would have a job reading this on a journey anywhere, for instance), its size also makes it quite awkward to store.

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John B. Sparks’ 1931 ‘Histomap’ demonstrates the ‘stream of time’ conceptualisation well (and can be seen in all its glory here).

However, that small but important practical niggle aside, this was another winner. I’m always fascinated by time as a concept, largely because of its seemingly-immutable-and-natural-but-actually-invented nature, and Grafton and Rosenberg did not disappoint in what at first appears an improbably niche book, even by my standards. It gets four stars xxxx.

 

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