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BOUND TO PLEASE / Elegantly expressed ideas shine in posthumous collection of a master

The Japan News

By Yung-Hsiang Kao / Japan News Staff WriterFractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century

By Eric Hobsbawm

Little, Brown Book Group, 337pp

Even those not ordinarily drawn to history would do well to read this book or any other work by British historian Eric Hobsbawm. Hobsbawm made history interesting and alive. One would be hard pressed to find another historian who was able to write about Zinedine Zidane or Christian Dior with the same ease as he wrote about Henry Ford or Karl Marx.

When he died on Oct. 1, 2012, at age 95, not just the academic world but also the general reader lost a great voice on world history.

This first posthumous work, “Fractured Times: Culture and Society in the Twentieth Century,” is a collection of 22 essays, most published for the first time. Some chapters were originally lectures given at festivals in Europe. While one essay was originally published in 1964, the rest were created between 1993 and 2012.

The book’s focus is on “what happened to the art and culture of bourgeois society after that society had vanished with the generation after 1914, never to return,” Hobsbawm writes in the preface. He provides the necessary historical background while also offering ideas of what the future may hold for society and culture.

It might seem unusual for someone versed in history to talk about the future, a curiosity Hobsbawm readily admits. He had taught at Birbeck College, University of London, and the New School for Social Research in New York, and was well known for a series of “The Age of” history books, including “Revolution: 1789-1848” (published 1962), “Capital: 1848-1875” (1975) and “Empire: 1875-1914” (1987). Yet Hobsbawm’s background in history informs his perspectives on the future. Add to that his eloquent and witty writing style and it all keeps the reader immersed.

What this volume reveals is the consistency of Hobsbawm’s method, his way of making history easy to understand for all while not talking down to his audience. For example, from a 2000 lecture at the Salzburg Music Festival in Austria, he wrote:

“It is often assumed that globalisation involves the assimilation of the world to a single predominant pattern, in practice a Western or, more precisely, an American one … But we can already determine that culturally it leads to a heterogeneous world of cultural confusion, coexistence or even perhaps a world of syncretisms.”

Hobsbawm’s consistent style ties these essays together. His original voice draws the reader into each chapter, presenting a clear argument sprinkled throughout with interesting nuggets.

“Virtually none of the operas in the regular repertoire is much younger than eighty years old and virtually none was written by a composer born after 1914,” he wrote, from a 2002 lecture. To which he added in typical dryness, “Overwhelmingly, operatic production, like Shakespearean play production, consists of attempts to freshen up eminent graves by putting different sets of flowers on them.”

Perhaps his take in 2000 on the buildings that will be symbols of the 21st century will be one with which Tokyoites might agree:

“At the end of our millennium there are three types of building ... suitable as new symbols of the public sphere: first, the large ... arenas and stadiums; second, the international hotel; and third, ... shopping and entertainment centres. If I had to bet on one of these horses, it would be the arenas and stadiums.”

One look at the Olympic stadiums built for Beijing 2008 and London 2012 and the one planned for Tokyo 2020 will reveal the historian’s predictions coming true.

Best place to read

In the living room at night, listening to jazz (Hobsbawm also was a jazz writer) with a glass of Scotch served neat — or ginger ale for teetotalers.

Maruzen price: ¥2,420 plus tax (as of Sept. 18, 2014)

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