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1616: The World in Motion

This lavishly illustrated history of the year 1616 is both enthralling and frustrating.

By Randy Dotinga / April 12, 2012

1616: The World in Motion By Thomas Christensen Counterpoint 288 pp.

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In 1616, on the same April day, humankind loses two of its best storytellers when William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes pass away. Their worlds, the ones they’d timelessly chronicled, are in transition too.

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The works of Shakespeare, no longer a hot property, are sent to sent to a script doctor so they could be spiced up for modern audiences. Queen Elizabeth is gone, replaced by a king who is more interested in admiring the shapely ankles of courtly gentlemen than continuing her spectacular reign.

The fantastic global power of Spain, home to Cervantes, stands at its peak with nowhere to go but down. Slavery, which had once captured the creator of Don Quixote in its grip, is transforming into a massive soul-robbing venture. And across Asia, empires are rumbling.

There’s quite a story lurking in 1616. Of course, there’s also one in every other year, especially the big ones like 1492, 1776, 1861, and the future year when once-lowly book critics are honored with grand statues. (Can’t come soon enough!)

But out of the blue, something about this particular year captured the mind of historian and book translator Thomas Christensen in 2009. He decided to figure out where humanity stood at that moment in time.

Now, to rephrase the Bard, all the world’s a book. A coffee-table-sized and beautifully illustrated book, evocative and frustrating at the same time.

If you pick up 1616: The World in Motion, be prepared to dip into it again and again, if only to admire the gorgeous reproductions of art from around the world. Every major culture seems to be represented in paintings and drawings, turning this into a hybrid of history book and art book.

As for the text, Christensen convincingly argues that his year chosen at random is a pretty nifty one. In it, he says, you can make out “intimations of modernism” in all sorts of areas, from globalism and diasporism to rationalism, bureaucratization and individualism.

Diasporism? Bureaucratization? Yes, “1616” has an academic feel that makes for tough reading in spots. It doesn’t help that Christensen throws in plenty of obscure references. Anatolia, Togukawa Japan, and the Timurid empire, anyone?

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