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1616: The World in Motion
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on March 13, 2012
The new trend in history leads toward isolating one year and making it resonate. We saw it last year with books like Charles Mann's 1493: Uncovering The New World Columbus Created and Fred Kaplan's 1959: The Year That Changed Everything. Those were successful titles because 1493 is so close to a year even schoolchildren have burned into memory - 1492- that we are automatically curious as to what happens next. And 1959 works because the civil rights movement was in its infancy, Bob Dylan was imitating Little Richard in Minnesota, and the Sandy Koufax Los Angeles Dodgers beat the White Sox in the World Series (ahem).

1616: The World In Motion by Thomas Christensen finds its own memorable niche by describing the year as the beginning of several "isms" - globalism, capitalism, and individualism among them. The furies unleashed by these "isms" seem perfectly and spectacularly captured by the paintings reproduced at the very center of the book's spine (pages 158-159) and I recommend that before readers do anything else, they visit these pages first because there Armageddon unfolds among disemboweled corpses, minions that are grotesquely shaped, indeed, the whole cataclysm of war is savagely unveiled in a painting by Peter Paul Rubens entitled "Victory and Death of Decius Mus". That painting is immediately followed by war's reconciliation in another Rubens painting entitled Minerva Protects Pax From Mars and it seems that taken together, the paintings accurately capture the extremes of human behavior in the year Christensen documents.

Christensen hammers home his theme of extremes throughout the text, perhaps never more clearly than in the story of Johannes Kepler, the inventor of three laws of planetary motion. Kepler may indeed have postulated three timeless theorems, but he lived in an age where his mother was nearly burned as a witch. It is appropriate that another illustration captures the contradictions of the age: the front cover of the book depicts an Asian nobleman in a newly woven silk robe, his bow aquiver, his arrow pointing at the title 1616, and when we open to page 20, we see the nobleman's arrow directed at a decapitated head - invention and cruelty co-mingled in Christensen's copiously illustrated saga.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on June 9, 2012
In the spirit of openness and disclosure, I knew Tom Christensen in high school. He was one of my closest friends, the two of us even appearing together in a theater production. And, speaking of high school, I hated my history classes. They were, for the most part, uninspiring, disengaging sessions consisting of the memorization of names, dates, events and locations with the follow-up of the inevitable quiz (or occasional test) on Friday. In the majority of cases, all the data was completely forgotten by the following Monday! Which facts initially presented me with somewhat of a conundrum: How would I be able to give an unbiased review of a book that an old comrade has written about a subject I loathed?

The solution was surprisingly simple: I read the book.

To my astonishment and joy, I found that 1616: The World in Motion is not at all akin to the dull, pedantic tomes of old. It does not recite history; it exhales it with the clean, unbefouled sweetness of a suitor wooing his intended. There are no lists; there are intricate tapestries, which are woven with threads of pure gold and silver. There is none of the censorship that we used to endure in those earlier texts; there is a candor that dares to express the bold and unabashed facts of the age. Having recently published a novel myself that deals with the subject of rape, I was pleased to read the following forthright passage:

"Workplace rape was common during the Renaissance, and not necessarily considered an especially grave offense, though by the early seventeenth century it was increasingly frowned upon. Servants were especially vulnerable.... Women working in male-dominated trades were another often victimized group, in part because the men they came in contact with often lacked the wherewithal for marriage. Gang rape was not uncommon; it was usually justified by the imputation of a lack of chastity to the victim. In such cases the woman might be forced to take a small sum of money as proof of her harlotry."

I most certainly do not wish to suggest that this book is built upon sensationalism, however. Much of the text is covered in the manner of a master storyteller. For example, covering the topic of the travels of Pietro della Valle, whom he describes as "a tourist, wandering mainly out of curiosity and a desire for new experiences," Mr. Christensen writes:

"In Istanbul he spent a year partying, seeing the sights, and learning Turkish, which was to be his go-to language throughout his journeys. He discovered there a strange new drink called cahue (coffee) and another called sherbet, as well as an unusual loose-weave fabric called terry cloth and a kind of furniture called a sofa, all of which he resolved to introduce into Italy. He judged coffee to be improved by the addition of sugar, cinnamon, and cloves, and he speculated that it could be made even better by brewing it with wine rather than water."

What a charming vignette depicting but a few of the accomplishments of someone of whom most of us have never heard!

Throughout this book, I encountered countless such charismatic details, all of them expressed in a manner that was both captivating as well as enlightening! As Mr. Christensen writes in his Preface:

"Cathartic events can so dominate an era that they make it difficult to see the deeper forces that drive long-term change. In 1616, on the other hand, it is possible to make out intimations of modernity in developing globalism, militarism, imperialism, diasporism, colonialism, capitalism, rationalism, bureaucratization, urbanization, individualism, and so on."

Through the reading of 1616: The World in Motion, I have achieved a refreshed and renewed delight in those very "intimations"!
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on February 8, 2015
There are maybe too many books using the theme of one year in history. It works in this book, and works well. This really is a world in motion. I'm not convinced that 1616 is better than 1615 or 1617, but that's beside the point. He links together a wide variety of events and creates a really compelling narrative. It's a good read, entertaining and solidly researched.

Chapters are really themes looked at through a variety of cultures. Chapter 1, Silk and Silver, looks at how the Spanish silver mines in the New Work were connected with the Chinese and Asian markets through the Manila galleon system, an early and quite important globalization. Chapter 2, Shakespeare's Sisters, considers women who wrote and painted and did some remarkable things; it's a bit Eurocentric here, but he introduces a number of women who deserve to be far better known. Chapter 3, Creative Imitation, subtitled tradition and innovation in the arts, is a fascinating look at painting and other arts in Persia, Japan, India and Europe, including some cross-pollination even at the early period. Chapter 4, Witch Hunters and Truth Seekers, is complicated and focuses on figures like Kepler. Chapter 5, A World in Motion, combines the themes and presents, well, a world in motion.

His character portraits are very very good. Figures like Kepler often come across as superbly dull. Christensen's Kepler is not so nice a person, but very interesting. There is a sizable cast of characters here, some known well such as Babur, and some not known well at all, such as painters in Persia and India. I'll read this book again.

Excellent section of illustrations.
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on June 21, 2014
This is an excellent multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural approach to a series of massive changes brought about by the "voyages of discovery" in the sixteenth century. Author does a nice job of tying in the effects of the subsequent globalization that occurred in trade, religion, the arts, and politics. It spans Europe, Asia, and the Americas and moves back and forth effortlessly among the various locales. The author's style can be somewhat ponderous but it is worth the read. I learned a lot from it and it opened up a number of horizons hitherto unknown. (FJR)
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on February 20, 2013
I appreciated the sections on South America, the far east and Persia and NorthAfrica the most. The section that covered women, and the arts were a bit dreary. However there was enough information to satisfy my mind and add to understanding and general knowledge.
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on October 22, 2013
This book was required reading for my Music History course and although it isn't about music, it is much more interesting than I thought it was going to be. The book arrived in a timely manner and was in excellent condition. I wasn't excited about reading it at first, but the author makes the content extremely interesting.
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6 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on July 7, 2012
The author's background seems to have been post-modernist studies. This might be the reason for a book which is replete with factoids, lively but irrelevant asides, alas little wit, and (as befits our self-righteous age) lachrymose or uplifting stories of victimhood (slavery, gender) or achievement in the face of adversity.

1616 is but a pale reference point from which one is to meander hither and thither around the world, caught in an eddy of overlong detail here, rushing madly over a cataract of historical developments there, and generally elegantly going nowhere and everywhere. One damn detail follows another, or the vacuous flag of "interconnectivity"; no subject is ever defined, structured, analysed or exhausted; and the reasons for inclusion (or the extent of its treatment) seem whimsical at best - or maybe, like Balzac, the author needed to produce copy. Thus the treatment of Rosicrucianism is excruciatingly long, while less than informing.

The author seems to be afflicted by attention disorder: so in the same paragraph he jumps from Fludd to Paracelsus to Harvey to the Chinese Emperor Hogwu (Daoism) and then on to other Chinese matters.

And for good measure, he can't drop anything trivial. In another paragraph - on art at the court of the Moghuls - he concludes: "Besides Abul Hasan, Mansur, and Bichitr, Jahangir's large workshop employed many more skilled painters, men with names like Balchand, Basawan, Daulat, Hashim, Manohar, Miskin, and Payag. The names of a few women also appear on the signatures of his workshop's paintings: Nadira Banu, Ruqiya Banu, Sahifa Banu." Do we need this daisy chain of names?

The writing is dull, and convoluted: "From the distance of the twenty-first century it can be difficult to understand how such distinctions could be so important as to expel a person who subscribed to all of the other official church doctrines from its community, or why it was so important to Kepler to maintain this position despite the serious consequences, but within a few years, in the Thirty Years War, a great many people would die for just such fine distinctions (ironically, the Lutheran church itself would abandon the doctrine of ubiquity within a few years)."

We are often treated to banalities like: "the world of the Indian Ocean was a cosmopolitan place before the Europeans' arrival" - klunk (asif this was novel insight - it is just evidence of our own provincialism). Or: "Fludd's massive work on the macrocosm / microcosm theory amounted to its last gasp as something approaching a mainstream philosophy in the West." Whatever "mainstream" may be... for he neither explains Fludd nor his definition.

The themes of the book are: (a) globalization and trade; (b) condition of women; (c) painters; (d) witchcraft and esoteric beliefs; (e) travelers and transgressors. That this collection has little unity - except for rhyzomic interconnectivity - can be seen from the scant and blah one page conclusion.

The book gets the second star on account of the lavish and unusual illustrations. The author writes catalogues for exhibitions - he knows his art objects. This aspect is excellent.

Final quibble: endowed academic chairs are an affectation. Endowed reproductions are plain ridiculous (some of the illustrations in the book identify the name of the person who funded the purchase of a museum. Who cares?) And in any case, if one is consistent, one should identify all the art that was stolen... the Louvre would then be full of signs: stolen by Napoleon.
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on April 24, 2015
Thank you
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1 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2012
This book is a gift to any history buff. The prologue and first chapter, "Silk and Silver," are monumental in that they so vividly paint a picture of the world in 1616, and draw you in, and surprise you to no end. It was an incredible read!
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