Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Book Review: The Great Sea

The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean
David Abulafia

Long long ago, in my college days, I read Fernand Braudel's classic book The Mediterranenan and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. I remember thinking that Braudel suffered from a classic academic (and, arguably, specifically French) disease: the need to reduce everything to The Grand Theory. Down with the tyranny of events! Away with the outmoded historiography of great men! Long live the vast socio-meteorological-economic forces that are the true engines of history!

David Abulafia commits the opposite error. He's full of details, but he has no overarching theory. Worse, he has no real narrative structure. As a result, The Great Sea is full of enormous paragraphs explaining that, for example:
... Between 1960 and 1973 the number of annual visitors to Majorca rose precipitously from 600,000 to 3,600,000. By the start of the twenty-first century, tourism accounted for 84 per cent of the Majorcan economoy ... Majorca and Spain (excluding the Canaries) accounted for 25 per cent of British foreign holiday-making in 1964, and 36 per cent in1972, while holidays to Italy fell from 16 per cent to 11 per cent ...
The effect is to bury the reader under a mountain of data, without providing any actual information. From Abulafia's long chapter on the Middle Ages, for instance, I retained basically two items:
  1. Everybody traded with everybody.
  2. Everybody fought with everybody.
There are some colorful threads shot through this fabric, but they don't add up to a pattern. Abulafia sets out to divide Mediterranean history into distinct socio-economic epochs, which is a fine notion, but he loses control of his structure sometime in the Roman period. The rest is just ... data.

Braudel's work, while fascinating, is too academic for most readers. Simon Winchester's Atlantic does a better job with this sort of narrative, albeit for a different ocean (nor is it his best book).

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