Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Oracle Bones - Peter Hessler

Right after World War II, Kremlinology started being considered a discipline worth of financing. Likewise, a lot of books and movies about Japan or with Japanese motives were written in the 1980s, as Americans thought that Japan would replace them as the Worlds largest economy. Over the last 15 years, the same thing has happened with China: movies, books, music, trips, lectures, grants, and scholarships have been devoted to studying the second largest economy in the World.  American declinism is not only the United States national sport, but also an engine of the economy.

From a commercial perspective, Oracle Bones benefited greatly from the China Mania that has permeated the United States over the last couple of years. Oracle Bones was considered best book of the year by the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, Entertainment Weekly, the New York Times (book review here), and the Minneapolis Star Tribune. This book was also one of the reasons Hessler received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2011.

But Oracle Bones is also an extremely well written book. In 20 years, no matter if China becomes the World largest superpower, or the United States is paranoid about the industrial and military rise of Uganda, people will still think of this book as a reference on China's modernization. Oracle Bones deals with issues like China's  internal migration, migration to the United States and political assylum, political repression, generation gap, and archaeology, just to mention a few. As I said, a tremendous amount of information related to China is produced daily, you can google all these topics right now and get very high quality information on them. But as important as statistics and hard facts are, the beauty of books like Oracle Bones is that they put human faces to the news. Non-fiction and long format journalism are like stopping for a rest in the middle of a long trip. (there is obviously a limit: most American newspapers are filling their pages with individual stories on anything rather than report facts; this kind of texts used to appear only on Sundays, but as newspapers face financial constrains, they have to put all the meat on the grill, even if that means lowering their standards)

Hessler set the bar too high for people who want to write a similar book on China. The good news for readers is that he moved to Egypt (here is one of his articles for the New Yorker), where he will presumably produce high quality texts for us; the bad news for journalists and non-fiction writers specialized on the Middle East is that a young talented writer will take some of the market they expect to tap...

Here is Hessler talking about China in general for National Geographic.

And in the video below Hessler talks about Oracle Bones in the Google headquarters:

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