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Editorial Reviews

From Booklist

*Starred Review* For much of recorded history, human beings have argued and even gone to war on the basis of perceived differences of religion, nationality, class, gender, race, and civilization. But we’re not doomed to keep viewing the world as us versus them, argues historian Cannadine. If we move beyond binary notions of good and evil, we can instead focus on our common humanity. Cannadine systematically examines the six most pervasive areas of identities across historical periods, as well as the role of theologians, historians, politicians, and pundits in continually emphasizing differences. For example, historical interactions between Christianity, Islam, and Judaism were far more nuanced and fluid, with as many conflicts within the religious groups as among them, than is now commonly understood. Despite undeniable differences, the common areas of conflict have come from particular group interests, exaggerated notions of the importance of the differences, an insistence on a binary perspective, and reinforced historical accounts that deny our commonalities. Drawing on history, philosophy, economics, sociology, and religion, Cannadine offers a broad and sweeping look at the myriad ways we’ve been at each other’s throats throughout history. Still, he ends with the hopeful prospect that more historians will reexamine the chronicles of group conflicts and offer balanced perspectives. --Vanessa Bush

Review

“Cannadine does not say so, but he may well have written his book in response to Samuel Huntington’s famous argument about the clash of civilizations. I can only hope that The Undivided Past…so authoritative in its coverage of history…will have all the impact of Huntington’s work, serving as an important reminder that human beings around the world not only have much in common but also have improved the conditions of their lives over time. His optimism is both refreshing and necessary.”
            —Alan Wolfe, The New York Times Book Review

“Elegantly written and stimulating…Cannadine is justified in drawing attention to how dangerously politicized history can become.”
            —David Priestland, The Guardian (UK)

“One of our most provocative and profound historians, Cannadine confronts the brutally populist, crudely polarized Manichean concept of “us versus them” in the writing of history. He affirms, rather, the complexity and diversity of humanity and the connectedness of its manifold identities.”
            —Iain Finlayson, The Times (UK)

“A spirited case for harmony against the myths of identity politics…The Undivided Past succeeds best as a Swiftian treatise on the ignorance of the learned, and the follies of the wise. While the fetishism of a single, adversarial identity still derails the study of history as much as the practice of politics, The Undivided Past should earn applause.”
            —Boyd Tonklin, The Independent (UK)

“Highly intelligent, stimulating, occasionally provocative and enormous fun to read…To write about the past, Cannadine concludes, requires the historian to celebrate the common humanity that has always bound us together, that still binds us together today, and that will continue to bind us together in the future. It is noble message and one that historians would do well to heed.”
            —Philip Ziegler, The Spectator (UK)

“A mediation on the ways in which history has been abused to present the world divided into simple opposing identities of good and evil, “them” and “us”…if any current historian might speak truth to power then we should wish it to be David Cannadine.”
            —Dan Jones, The Daily Telegraph (UK)

“David Cannadine is a distinguished historian; his new book should make him famous. Now at the summit of his career, he brings a message that only a veteran and learned historian could deliver convincingly.”
            —Hugh Brogan, History Today (UK)

“Persuasive, impassioned…Historian and editor Cannadine constructs a stirring critique of history that questions conventional approaches to narrating the human chronicle. Cannadine, an accomplished writer, details it in fresh and provocative terms…An incisive argument buttressed by millennia of evidence.”
         —Starred review, Kirkus Reviews

 “Cannadine systematically examines the six most pervasive areas of identities across historical periods…Drawing on history, philosophy, economics, sociology, and religion, Cannadine offers a broad and sweeping look at the myriad ways we’ve been at each other’s throats throughout history. Still, he ends with the hopeful prospect that more historians will reexamine the chronicles of group conflicts and offer balanced perspectives.”
         —Starred review, Booklist

The Undivided Past offers us a great historian's skeptical and liberating exploration of the ways in which our various social identities do and do not make us what we are. David Cannadine deploys his penetrating erudition through contentious territory, maintaining always an exemplary elegance and civility.”
         —Kwame Anthony Appiah, author of The Ethics of Identity and Cosmpolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers
 
 “A complex, thoughtful examination of the fundamental ways in which humanity divides itself.” 
         —Publishers Weekly
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1st edition (April 9, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307269078
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307269072
  • Product Dimensions: 5.9 x 1.4 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.3 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #647,746 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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39 of 43 people found the following review helpful By Stanley Crowe TOP 1000 REVIEWER on April 24, 2013
Format: Hardcover
David Cannadine is a professional historian, and it is as a professional historian that he undertakes in his latest book to critique certain procedures that pass themselves off as historical thinking and historical wisdom but which are promulgated by non-historians with various agendas. These procedures might be generally characterized as "binary thinking," and they undertake to provide the keys to an essential understanding of the way history "works." He looks at examples of binary thinking under the categories of religion, nation, class, gender, race, and civilization. The order is not accidental - it represents the historical sequence in which these categories were first employed to explain what their promulgators believed to be the moving forces of historical change, and in all cases these categories were employed in order to separate the sheep from the goats (and worse) of history. Thus, under religion, for example, "Christianity" is set against "paganism." Under class, the "proletariat" is set against the "bourgeoisie," and so on. It is what Cannadine calls a "Manichean" schematic, with the forces of light the first mentioned in pairings like the above, and the forces of darkness the latter. The interest of these broad categories for Cannadine is that they were understood by their promulgators to be essential to understanding the way human beings identified themselves in collectivities. Thus, in his chapter on "Civilization," for example, he is talking about writers and thinkers who see a "civilization" as the basic unit of human collectivity that requires analysis if we are to understand how the world really works.Read more ›
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful By Marc L on July 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Cannadine has drawn a lot of criticism for his main assertion that historians, just as journalists, are too much focussed on the negative, give too much attention to confrontation and conflicts and neglect situations of coexistence, dialogue and cooperation.
He develops his assertion around 6 identities that have been understood and proposed as too exclusive (against others): religion, nation, class, gender, race and civilization. These identities are not as homogeneous and exclusive as they claim to be, and their claim that they are the most important way of collective organisation, is bluntly wrong, the author says.
I find Cannadine's argumentation interesting and deserving, but it is all a bit too superficial (as he himself concedes in his intro). Some identities (like class) are treated with rather cheap contempt (for example the wrong asumptions of marxism), whilst others are treated with more respect.
I can agree with Cannadine that there is need to focus on the positive aspects of human development, but it seems to me that he has put his "opponents" too much in the negative, so he can "stab" them more convincingly, thereby making the same mistake as the one he says to fight.
And with that he ignores the fact that in human history, the 6 covered identities hàve played a very prominent role, indeed often in the negative, but also in the positive way! To belittle that is like closing your eyes for reality.
So, in the end, Cannadine has not convinced me, but nevertheless his book really is a stimulating read!
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By J. Bracey on July 27, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Carradine's volume is a welcome counterbalance to the torrent of volumes which describe the things which divide us. I couldn't help but notice that Carradine necessarily spends many of his words (sometimes) explicitly and (more often) implicitly agreeing with some significant portion of what all those other authors say about our divisions. The value in his work is that while he cannot utterly destroy the concepts of difference, he does manage to demonstrate that those litanies of difference are not the whole story. His title is therefore something of an overstatement, a marketing necessity, it appears. A more accurate but far less appealing and "sexy" title would have been: _The Divisions of our Past Aren't as Desperately Bad as Others Want You to Believe, and We're Not Well Served by Focusing on Division_. (Now THAT'S an atrocity of a title! No wonder he chose differently.)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Jennifer L. Brush on September 9, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I saw this book reviewed in the Princeton alumni magazine and tried to ignore it as just another history of the world in 300 pages. But the theme of a possible uplifting and even joyous rendering of the history of mankind kept pulling me back to the review. I bought the book and love it. I am professionally involved with international conflict management and quote copiously from this book to bring sides back to the table and find their common humanity. A must read for those in my line of work.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By jtk on November 11, 2013
Format: Hardcover
In The Undivided Past, David Cannadine analyzes what he convincingly argues as flawed attempts to understand conflicts in history as strict binary events. Where divisions are drawn as strictly two-sided, pitting one religion versus another, one race against another, one nation opposite another, we too often miss the nuance, exceptions and so often, hazy intersections of an otherwise overlapping story. In six parts, Cannadine shows how history is not so black and white. In order he discusses Religion, Nation, Class, Gender, Race and Civilization. He demonstrates how others have tried to define these divisions, usually imperfectly while demonstrating how unevenly and unsatisfactory many of these attempts have been. His focus is largely on the past two hundred years of the West. Pitting the West, against whatever else, it that should be noted is just one such view that would also fail as one such division. Nonetheless, what drew me into Cannadine's book was the content, but especially the writing. His prose is sophisticated, learned and descriptive. While it is written for a popular audience, it is also written with a vocabulary and finesse that is too often found missing in popular non-fiction. Descriptions and periods covered are both sharp and broad. While this is not an introductory history book, it may introduce some otherwise unfamiliar history to those but with the most study.

The source material is as extensive as the text. Cannadine is a serious scholar of the finest order and his expertise shows on every page. While some events or topics may not be of high interest to readers there is practically something here for everyone. In fact there is probably a lot of things here for everyone. Perhaps it would be intuitive at the start, but a greater appreciation for the subtlety of divisions in history will be found and hopefully appreciated herein.
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