My vow to read more non-fiction from actual experts instead of popular science stuff came across the barrier of accessibility. For instance, I’ve always had a thing for Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory so I went to look for one of its foremost applications, Janet Abu-Lughod’s Before European Hegemony: The World System A.D. 1250-1350. The public library only has a copy in its reference section, so I can’t borrow it, and while a classic in intellectual history it’s not a popular book like Guns, Germs, and Steel so it’s kind of pricey. Plus I don’t even want a copy – I’m not a big book collector and I don’t even have copies of my favourite works of fiction, much less academic works. But such is the lot of certain classic works of non-fiction.
Still, I was already in the middle of reading A History of Southeast Asia: Critical Crossroads by Anthony Reid and this is definitely the stuff I was wanting. It synthesizes the current state of academic thinking about the region across multiple fields: history and archaeology primarily with a bit of linguistics and comparative theology, but it pulls together sources culled from like ten different languages so it’s a pretty impressive intellectual effort.
So far I’ve gotten through the prehistory of Southeast Asia, with the initial human settlement of the area (including arrival of other human species before Homo sapiens), the dispersal and probable driving out of Austronesians from southern China and Taiwan (which at the time was part of the mainland) into the most geographically-dispersed diaspora before modern times (from Madagascar to Easter Island), the simultaneous spread of speakers of the Tai language family (for example, Thai and Khmer) on the mainland, the early Buddhist polities (including the central role maritime Malay cities had in spreading Buddhism to China), the veneration of Shiva by early kings, the spread of Islam, and now I’ve reached the Ming dynasty expeditions of Zheng He and the modern colonial era.
Anyway, yeah, I’m enjoying this a lot more than a popular science book.