Posted on Monday, January 23rd, 2006 at 12:19 pm under Nonfiction

Title: The River at the Center of the World
Author: Simon Winchester
Genre: Nonfiction

What I liked this book: I very much enjoy reading travel writing as a way to learn a bit about history, culture, landscape, and people in places I’ve never been. Travel writing is often more accessible than more scholarly approaches to a subject, and it’s almost always more colorful. Winchester’s book on the Yangtze is no exception; he paints wonderfully descriptive word-pictures of the people (rural, urban, military, commercial, Chinese, foreign) that he encounters on his journey, and his appreciation for the unique places he’s visiting, as well as the grandeur of the river he’s travelling, shines though. I also learned more about various moments in China’s history that I’ll be reading more about in some other venue — he sparked my curiosity.

What I DIDN’T like about this book: I’ve read other books by Winchester, including The Professor and the Madman, and Outposts, both of which were focused on very British topics. As a result, I’d never noticed before how personal, how British, how western, his understanding of his subjects is. When he’s talking about Britain, or explicitly about the British Empire, it’s not terribly obvious! But when he’s talking about China, it becomes clear how much his own cultural beliefs are intruding on his observations. He writes with an obvious sympathetic nostalgia about the westerners who tried to open China to trade, and with an equally obvious disdain about the Soviet and communist Chinese forces that impacted the country’s later history — and he glosses over nearly everything in between. And that bias became overwhelming for me — I was hoping for more impartiality, and his politics got in the way of my enjoyment of the book.

So, in total, if you can overlook the author’s personal feelings when they intrude into the narrative (something that, in a travel book, is entirely allowable!), this is a vivid look at a grand river, and the people who have lived on its banks.

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