“Who, or Why, or Which, or What: A Global Gazetteer of the Instructive and Strange” by John Oldale – London and New-York, Particular Books (Penguin Group), 2011
The classic gazetteer is a numbing compilation of places: their names, their coordinates in an attendant eye-taxing mini-atlas, and some raw data, usually presented in an utterly indecipherable manner. Enough to put one off travel – and reading - for good.
Imagine my surprise then, when I warily stole a peek inside the covers of John Aldale’s gazetteer. In decades of avid – nay, compulsive – immersion in reference works dating back three centuries I do not recall having come across a tome remotely similar to this concoction! The author being an adventurer and globe-trotting traveller in the Lawrence of Arabia mold may have something to do with it.
The gazetteer’s design is traditional: the countries of the world are arranged alphabetically. But here all resemblance to any geographical dictionary you have ever beheld ends.
Each country has its name written in English and in its own script. This nod to local civilization is followed by a joyous, riotous, and unrestrained train of historical, cultural, social, and political associations, a veritable and delectable cornucopia of anecdotes, facts, factoids, quotes, myths, curiosities, and oddities. It feels like rummaging through an inordinately mysterious and endowed attic in a manor that’s 5000 years old. The entire ensemble is handsomely illustrated with photos, diagrams, charts, and drawings.
Two countries I know well and first-hand are Israel and Macedonia. I used these polities to test the validity and relevance of the book’s contents.
I was surprised by the author’s choice to dedicate a mere 2 pages to Israel, the cradle of all Western and Middle-Eastern religions, and the target of conquering armies from the Babylonians to the Crusades. In comparison, Italy got 5 pages. I was also somewhat puzzled by the author’s selection of trivia which I did not think captured Israel’s spirit or its history. But when I turned the leaf to Macedonia, I was rewarded with a timely exposition of all the issues that characterize the territory and its complex relations with its neighbours, including its current overwhelming identity crisis.
“I couldn’t put the book down” is by now a trite cliché used in every book review. But I really couldn’t: this book is an enchantment, a time travel, an adventure park, and a rounded education all wrapped into one and doused in dollops of wry humor and compassion. I learned, I laughed, I felt provoked and comforted, it sent me searching furiously for answers online and in other books, it made me daydream, or sit up startled. It is the kind of book that keeps on giving long after its perusal is over.
DISCLAIMER: The book was provided to me, as a review copy, courtesy Penguin Group.