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What’s in a Title?

Having staggered out of an Oxford hospital at some ungodly hour in November 2009, after watching my wife give birth to our son, I went in search of coffee and a newspaper. Settling down to read about what was happening in the ‘real world’, I tried to focus on an article describing a collaboration between the British Museum and BBC Radio 4 entitled A History of the World in 100 Objects. Neil MacGregor’s wonderful 100-part radio series and subsequent Penguin book of the same name would offer a global history of the world by drawing on a selection of the museum’s objects chosen from over two million years of human civilisation. I might have applauded such a wonderful initiative more enthusiastically if it wasn’t for the fact that two years earlier I had signed up to write a book with the same publisher called A History of the World in 12 Maps (out in September). There is, of course, no copyright on titles, nor was this one identical. After a soothing talk from my editor, I found myself agreeing with the design critic Stephen Bayley, who described discovering that someone had used the same title as him as ‘like being mugged by your granny, disturbing but harmless’. Nevertheless, as subsequent writers continue to use variations on the ‘History of the World’ formula, from Chris McNab’s A History of the World in 100 Weapons to James Fox’s forthcoming television series A History of Art in Three Colours, it strikes me that there is something more going on here than pure coincidence.

Perhaps we have all been inspired by Julian Barnes’s novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters (1989). Yet where such playful fiction can explore and parody the ‘cunning passages’ and ‘contrived corridors’ of history, non-fiction has to tread more carefully. Publishers are inevitably prey to the ambitious title that appeals to a broad market; one that promises a history of the world in a chosen number of objects (or maps) is inevitably subject to charges of hubris and questionable selection. In my case (and I suspect MacGregor’s), I wanted to explore the different meanings of ‘world’ as both a geographical phenomenon and a philosophical idea. I also wanted to show how a world map can express a world view at different moments throughout history. But in this recent spate of world histories I discern a growing interest among writers of historical non-fiction in telling global stories of the world we currently inhabit, with an emphasis on the ways in which people and communities have been shaped by certain culture-defining events and objects that question our narrow, parochial traditions.

Part of this interest has been inspired by the ‘trickle-down’ effect of high critical theory practised in the academy – the intellectual equivalent of haute couture that ultimately works its way into high-street fashion. In 1986, the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai published a collection of academic essays entitled The Social Life of Things, which provided a theory of writing the ‘biography’ of an object as part ‘thing’, part ‘commodity’. As a consequence of Appadurai’s work, and that of other academics working in similar areas, from the late 1990s commercial non-fiction has been dominated by books describing the social life of objects as various as cod, salt, coffee, tea, sugar, spices, tulips and even the humble potato. The postwar fascination with the self retreated as first academics and then commercial writers responded to the consumerism of the 1980s by trying to understand how objects shaped ideas and individuals rather than vice versa.

Today, in academia as well as trade publishing, the Zeitgeist has shifted again to embrace that vexed buzzword, ‘globalisation’: what does it mean, when did it start, and where will it lead us? Taking an object such as a map and exploring how its meaning and impact have changed across several millennia and in different cultures is one way of trying to respond to this need to understand where we have come from, and where we are going. Nor is this some wishy-washy attempt to explain how we should all get along: the results often reveal periods of conflict and antagonism. But by looking back into the connected histories of the past we can begin to explain how far ‘our’ world is more interdependent, in peace and in war, than we have ever realised.

The question is how we tell such global stories without being accused of a new form of intellectual colonialism by speaking for, say, ancient Chinese cultures or early Islamic communities. Such work is fraught with problems, and a history of the world in twelve maps is just one attempt that risks being highly selective in the objects it chooses (and those it does not) and the stories it tells (and those it omits). Nevertheless, we have to start somewhere, and perhaps one place to begin is to ask who, exactly, are ‘we’? In these straitened times for the humanities and social sciences, research councils are turning from funding single-authored academic monographs to ‘research networks’, teams of international scholars pooling their expertise to work on cross-cultural global projects that exceed traditional national, religious and ethnic boundaries, and whose success exceeds the capabilities of the lone scholar. Not only can this produce the harnessing of a greater range of specialisation, but it can also generate important methodological questions – and answers – as to who speaks for and about global history.

This new research agenda is part of a drive to justify the social ‘impact’ of non-scientific academic research, and many academics are sceptical about it. However, if it enables innovative research into new global histories, then I am all for it. It ’s probably too early to tell how this will all trickle down into commercial publishing, but if we want to do justice to the full complexities of the global world we’re in beyond the current neoconservative insistence upon economic homogenisation, then we need to try to tell new histories of the world, whatever the objects or numbers we use. r a u g u s t 2 0 1 2 | Literary Review 1