Unlike some books I did not read Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, c.800-1830 (vol. 2) in one sitting, or even over a few days. Part of the reason is length, at 977 pages in the print edition. Another aspect is the frankly verbally baroque writing style of the author. Very rarely do I encounter terms such as “architectonic” or “mycelium” in historical narratives. This is not the first time I’ve tried to read Strange Parallels (vol. 2). In 2010 I read Strange Parallels (vol. 1) while flying back and forth across the Atlantic for a wedding. Naturally a few weeks later I decided to tackle volume 2…but was daunted by the length, and the surprising substance of the sequel. I recall stopping somewhere at the point where the author was expounding at length on the nature of early state formation in Kievan Rus.
Not that I have a problem with an exploration of a topic like the genesis of the precursor of the modern Russian state, but the survey seemed ridiculously expansive. In Strange Parallels the author leverages his area knowledge of early modern mainland Southeast Asian state formation, and applies those insights more generally to arc of French, Russian, Japanese, Indian, and Chinese socio-political development. These specific cases are used to explore a descriptive observation about Eurasian polities over the past ~1000 years: many of them developed in a synchronistic manner in regards to economic growth and political robustness, or lack thereof.
The author explores a variety of hypothesis to explain this pattern, but more important is the massive “core dump” of specific detail which surveys the histories of these disparate nations. Though Strange Parallels is conceptually fertile, with ideas such as “charter states” and “protected vs. exposed zones” (in relation to Inner Asian nomads), it is in the empirical richness that the work justifies a close reading. It’s one of those books where you inspect the footnotes! Though the prose and the length of the work are somewhat of a slog, going through the whole book is worth it to gain a broader understanding of Eurasian political and social history over the past 1000 years.
Addendum: There are many similarities with William McNeill’s The Human Web, though Strange Parallels is a much more expansive book that focuses on a narrower time period and a more finite set of societies.