13 July 2009


What separates good nonfiction writing from bad isn't something as ethereal and fleeting as a timely or groundbreaking nature--it's much simpler, really. The best nonfiction is written by people who are both experts in their fields, and terrific writers. Makes sense, doesn't it? If we can accept that definition, then (and I think we can), Bernard Porter's The Lion's Share: A Short History of British Imperialism most certainly qualifies as some of the best. For a book that's relatively easy to read (not to say that it isn't academically written; it is, it just also happens to be engaging), The Lion's Share is astonishingly informative. Moreover, if you buy into that ethereal stuff, it's quite timely right now (in 2004, Porter added a new chapter discussing US/UK involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, considered in light of imperial history), and was apparently fairly groundbreaking when first written (although I believe I've only got Porter's preface to back me up on that, which isn't necessarily the most unbiased of sources). There's no real need to describe the book's content; the subtitle does that well enough (A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004). It's a history, however, that's related with just the right touch of wit and good humor. Porter takes his subject seriously, but isn't above including the occasional and usually very illustrative but less-than-serious anecdote (my favorite is the colonial governor of Aden who stated, in 1965, that when the old empire had sunken "beneath the waves of history," it would leave just "two monuments" behind it: "the game of Association Football, and the expression 'Fuck Off'." Porter amusingly points out that Association Football actually didn't really catch on in the former empire, at least not to nearly the same extent as cricket). Granted, this isn't exactly a riveting read on par with, say, hard-boiled detective fiction; it's a history book, even if it is a good (say, A grade overall) history book. But if that's what you're into, I'd strongly recommend giving this one a try.

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