Review: The Boundless Sea, David Abulafia

Rating: 1 out of 5

There’s a saying by which the knowledge of today is too great for generalists to survive: one has to specialize. I definitely think that Mr Abulafia should have focussed this book by that principle, because the book jumps from one time and place to another, leaving confusion in its wake.

This book begins with Polynesian expansion in the Pacific Ocean and covers everything from that to recent trends of container ships. Between these two extremes are Arab merchants of the Indian Ocean, Norse colonization of Greenland, Baltic Sea merchant city states, and the Russo-Japanese War. As the subject matter tries to cover everything that has ever happened on the seas, this book becomes very difficult to follow. Also, the author has a tendency to refer to things which are going to be described in more detail a few chapters on—this can become annoying very quickly (and is most certainly *very* annoying by the twentieth time it happens).

This inability to focus on any area in more detail also means that while the descriptions of different periods and areas are detailed, these lack the anecdotal stories that give history colour. Most of the description is dry, though occasionally the author’s tangents take the reader onto land for long periods. While this makes sense for the reasons why those descriptions are included, it also makes for a book that is even more aimless. Another aspect of this book I dislike is how often the author likes saying how much better his own research is compared to everyone else who’s ever published a theory regarding these subjects (which is near everyone due to the wide scope).

What this could have been, instead, is a series of volumes that either focusses on specific regions or times. A coherent narrative that wants to include both Scandinavian settlements in North America and early trade empires in Malaysia doesn’t make sense otherwise, and the author’s attempts to tie it together prove this. Yet, the narratives that the author did include are thorough and do offer new information to the reader, and partially the same wide scope will offer near every reader something new to think about.

So… there’s a lot here that’s new, possibly quite a lot. Yet, the book is structured poorly and misses out on some of the most colourful detail that I’d like to see in a narrative history. I wouldn’t like to read it again.

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