Non-Western History Please!
June 3, 2014 9:49 AM   Subscribe

I want to read some non-Western history, from pre-colonial periods. All I ask is that it be a good read, but non-Western authors would be a cool bonus.

I'm tired of all the "world history" I read being either about Europe/America or about Europe/America's influence on the rest of the world. I want to know what went down in Asia, Africa, the Americas, Polynesia, etc before the era of colonialism.

Nothing is too broad or specific! I'm especially interested in Africa, Polynesia and Western Asia, just because I know the last about them currently, but anything at all is welcome.
posted by showbiz_liz to Media & Arts (18 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
I enjoyed Hawaii by James Michener, which covered an expansive period of time. It's a work of fiction based on fact.

I also enjoyed Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford.

Both are worth a read.
posted by Draccy at 9:58 AM on June 3, 2014

And I should indicate that Hawaii is largely a book about Polynesia and the culture.
posted by Draccy at 10:04 AM on June 3, 2014

posted by Snarl Furillo at 10:29 AM on June 3, 2014 [3 favorites]

The pre-colonial history of Burma is fascinating but rarely documented (in English). She Was a Queen is written by a colonialist (literally) and is rather romaticized, but it's a good read. The River of Lost Footsteps is more accurate, also a great read, but covers modern history as well as pre-colonial and colonial history, so it might not be quite what you're aiming for.

You may have already read it, but 1491 is a super-frequent recommendation in this area for a reason, it's extremely readable and an excellent overview.
posted by pie ninja at 10:29 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: OMG, I'd been avoiding 1491 because whenever I saw it in a bookstore I had it confused with the discredited alt-history book 1421.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:32 AM on June 3, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is a novel, but it has a lot of history interwoven. It's Andre Brink's The First Life of Adamastor. Brink is one of South Africa's most famous novelists.

Also, My Traitor's Heart by Rian Malan is my favourite non-fiction book EVER. It was written during the South African State of Emergency in the last 1980's and reflects the feeling that everything was about to erupt into civil war.

If you want more South African stuff, I can give you a longer reading list. :-)
posted by guster4lovers at 10:40 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

OMG, I'd been avoiding 1491 because whenever I saw it in a bookstore I had it confused with the discredited alt-history book 1421.

Ha! That's hilarious, I was semi-unaware of the existence of 1421 in book form (wasn't there a documentary or something?), and when I spotted a copy in a thrift store yesterday I made a beeline for the shelf to grab it, assuming that it was another by Charles C. Mann. When I got there, I was like oh, it's more of that buncombe.

But! The point is: I was confused because there is also another 14XX book by Mann, 1493, which is also worth reading.
posted by pullayup at 11:01 AM on June 3, 2014 [1 favorite]

Also about Polynesia: Where the Waves Fall
The Fatal Shore
Alberuni's India
posted by Ideefixe at 11:20 AM on June 3, 2014

I'm fascinated by historical textiles, mummies AND Central Asia, so this book was kind of relevant to my interests, but I found The Mummies of Urumqi fairly compelling.

You should be aware, though, that it's written by an expert on ancient textiles, and while (as far as I know as a layperson) her information on textiles is sound, some of the research she drew on for other parts of the book has been called into question. Even so, we're not talking about Terence McKenna levels of bonkers-ness, and it opens a nice window to a time and place not included in the standard Western sweep of history.
posted by pullayup at 11:21 AM on June 3, 2014

I'm reading a book right now about the debate of culture v nature when it comes to color in languages. Seems most languages start with words for black & white then red then either green or yellow and blue comes last. The book I'm reading (Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutsher) probably isn't a good place to start with this... though it is a good book. If I were going to delve into the history though, I'd start at the beginning with the first person to notice the phenomena, who was William Gladstone in 1858 when he noticed Homer's lack of color descriptions in the Iliad and wrote about it here (last bit of his book where he talks about color).

There are tons of linguistic books that talk about the color debate starting with Brent Berlin and Paul Kay's Basic Color Terms and the books found here. Sure this is all language, but what else is language but a study of culture, history, and how people perceive societies other than their own?
posted by patheral at 11:35 AM on June 3, 2014

You might also be interested in The Hindus by Wendy Doniger, a rather controversial book about the history of Hinduism, and, necessarily, what is now the nation of India. She does catch a lot of flak for being a Western author writing on a non-Western topic, but not along the lines you might expect as a liberal American.
posted by pullayup at 11:38 AM on June 3, 2014

I read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China in Non-western Lit during my undergrad. I felt like I walked away with a lot better understanding of Chinese history and geography due to it. The story was genuinely interesting, and I enjoyed reading it. Having a professor pronounce all the names in class discussions helped a bit too.

Oops, just realized this is a little outside of your realm of interest, but I still endorse the recommendation.
posted by ohjonboy at 1:28 PM on June 3, 2014

I recently purchased The Indonesia Reader, which has quite a bit of material on pre-colonial times along with stuff from the colonial period and contemporary Indonesia.

Nagaland: A Journey to India's Forgotten Frontier tells the story of (some of) the tribal peoples of Northeast India. There is a big focus on the colonial period, unfortunately, but it does offer a unique take on India with its focus on a non-Hindi, non-Urdu sector of society. You might dig it. I don't know.
posted by jason's_planet at 5:19 PM on June 3, 2014

I really enjoy reading ironically titled 1587: A Year of No Significant, Ming Dynasty In Decline. This book was first published in English as an academic book that is also accessible to general public. The Chinese translation of 1587 is a classic within historical writing genera.

The author presented the social history of Chinese society in sixteen century through mini-biographies of: an Emperor on strike against the bureaucracy, a reforming Prime Minister, a Japanese pirates fighting general, an uncompromising minister, and an eccentric philosopher.

The big theme of that book was that how could a government that have governed a country of hundreds of millions souls for 200 years could collapse so completely only 60 years later.
posted by Carius at 5:21 PM on June 3, 2014

You mentioned Western Asia, which would include Iran.

A History of Iran: Empire of the Mind
posted by jason's_planet at 5:26 PM on June 3, 2014

I have not yet read them, but I own copies of Alexander of Macedon and The Great Arab Conquests, both of which I'll get to once my book buying no longer outpaces my ability to read them.
posted by Turkey Glue at 7:57 PM on June 3, 2014

This is barely pre-colonial, but I loved Sarah Vowell's Unfamiliar Fishes, which focuses on the history of Hawaii leading up to statehood.
posted by neushoorn at 4:06 AM on June 4, 2014

Not strictly pre-colonial, because it (also) deals with the beginning of colonisation, but I think the Segu trilogy by Maryse Conde is something you'll love to read. I certainly did.
posted by Too-Ticky at 5:36 AM on June 4, 2014

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