Bill’s Book Blog, 4/17/2021

I’m trying to read 104 books* this year. Here are some thoughts about the one I read over the last week!

I only finished one book this week: the audiobook version of Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, by Jack Weatherford (2004).

My favorite kind of history is Defensive History, by which I mean a book written by a modern writer who is upset about the popular conception of some historical figure, and who writes a book in order to Correct the Record. Any history book is as much about the psychology of its author as it is about its ostensible subject matter, but this is particularly true for Defensive History. Chernow’s biography of Grant, for instance, taught me a lot about Ulysses S. Grant, but it also taught me a lot about what sort of things Ron Chernow thinks are important in a military or civil leader.

Genghis Khan is 33% biography of its titular figure (and to a lesser extent, the Great Khans Ögedei, Güyük, Möngke, and particularly Kublai); 33% history of Mongolian infrastructure and government; 33% argument about how the Mongol Empire laid the foundation for the European Renaissance and significant developments in the Middle East and China; and 100% impassioned apologetics for the Mongol Empire. Weatherford doesn’t just want you to learn about the Mongol Empire, he wants you to like it, and to like it better than most of the other great civilizations of its time.

I obviously have no way to evaluate the book’s historical accuracy, since I know next to nothing (well, except what I just learned from this book) about Mongolian history. The modern-day Mongolian government certainly liked the book a lot, as they awarded Weatherford their highest national honor a few years after it was published. But I found the book persuasive and well-argued, though since I listened to it as an audiobook I don’t have any way to check its sourcing or citations. The book was certainly enjoyable, and I have definitely been spouting off Mongol Facts to my friends for the last few weeks as a result of listening to it.

Weatherford argues that many of the popular cultural depictions of Genghis Khan and his empire, which depict him as a ruthless, bloody barbarian, are not based on reliable sources, but rather panicked propaganda written by Europeans with little to no idea what they were talking about. Weatherford’s Mongols are certainly not peace-loving hippies, but many of the characteristics of their government feel surprisingly modern and progressive, certainly when compared to other civilizations of the 12th and 13th centuries. Genghis and his heirs instituted complete religious freedom, a uniform judicial system, paper money, a robust postal service, diplomatic immunity for ambassadors, education aiming towards universal literacy, and a significant limitation on capital punishment. They did all this while ruling an empire (either directly or through vassalage) that, at its peak, stretched from the Black Sea to China. Further, because of the Mongols’ encouragement of trade and standardization of currency, Mongolian roads and institutions allowed for trade and exchange of ideas between Western Europe and China and everything in between.

Weatherford describes a number of excellent anecdotes and stories. My favorite occurs during the reign of Möngke Khan, fourth Great Khan, and the last Great Khan to be uncontroversially accepted as the Great Khan of all the Mongols; Kublai held the title but huge swaths of Mongol territory were only ambiguously under his control. One of Möngke’s wives (like a lot of Mongols) was a Christian, and so at least one year the Great Khan held a large Christmas celebration. Invited to this celebration were a number of monks and clerics from a variety of different religions. One European priest, William of Rubruck, apparently got into an argument with a Muslim cleric. Möngke Khan, naturally, decided to hold an elaborate debate competition between the various priests, broken up into rounds judged by an ecumenical panel, and with heavy drinking between each round. One of the only rules, apparently, was that direct denigration of the other competitors or their faiths was not only against the rules, but was ostensibly punishable by death.

I would pay approximately an infinite amount of money to read a full accounting of these debates between 13th-century Muslims, Buddhists, and Christians of various origins (the Mongolian Christians in particular were usually members of what is now called the Assyrian Church of the East, and is often referred to as “Nestorian” Christianity, though it’s my understanding that’s neither an accurate nor a polite term). William of Rubruck apparently wrote lengthy tomes about his travels, and while I can’t imagine those are entirely objective, I may have to see if there’s an accessible translation.

In all I obviously can’t speak to the accuracy of the history, but I enjoyed the book immensely, and it made me much more interested in Mongolian history. That’s really all any popular history book can do: make you want to read more books on the same subject.

Current Progress: 30/104, or 28.85%.

Current average pagecount: 285.07

*I count anything originally published in a standalone volume as one book, and although there’s no specific page-length requirements for what constitutes a “book,” I want to aim for an average of 300 pages at the end of the year.

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