As undergraduate courses shrink to bite-sized McModules, so publishers rush to produce digestible and affordable "seminar primer" series as synergistic tie-ins. For university teachers, this may be a welcome development. The unthinkable is once again thinkable: students will read recommended books from cover to cover. Perhaps they might even buy them.
The demands on such books are high. Where in the past students had time for a leisurely "read around a subject" in preparation for finals, today's undergraduates are largely required to "master" topics in a few short weeks, with shrinking personal book budgets, and in libraries where books and periodicals are likewise withering away. If modules increasingly rely on a handful of set texts, and students perhaps buy only one book per module, we as teachers need to be confident in both the academic merit and affordability of our recommendations.
These books belong to three different series designed for more or less exclusive undergraduate use. Individually, however, they represent quite distinct approaches to the fundamental purpose of such primers. Should they be synopsis, synthesis or stimulus? Or can all three co-exist in one slim volume?
Keith Robbins's The World Since 1945 , belonging to Oxford University Press's Opus imprint, aspires to the widest general, as well as undergraduate, readership. And in fewer than 300 pages Robbins rises to the daunting feat of compression quite impressively. He begins, sensibly, with an acknowledgement that "world history" can no more be written from nobody's point of view than from everybody's: there is no lofty Olympian plane from which the author might survey "global history". Robbins is also forthright in declaring his state-centric preference for writing a political history of the postwar world that concentrates on interactions between the more important constituent parts - some states in the international system being "more equal" than others. This might not be everyone's preferred recipe for international history, though the "less equal" periphery does not disappear altogether from view, and doubtless no such book could aspire to universal appeal. Commendably, Robbins does not write narrative history with a false sense of closure. Alert to historiographical debates, he clearly signals interpretational disputes. His prose is elegant, and there are enough irreverent asides (the Chinese Communist authorities' attempt in the 1980s to ban a novel by D. H. Lawrence that they believed to be titled Lady Thatcher's Lover ) to keep even readers amply familiar with the broad framework of postwar history engaged.
With less than half the wordage available to Robbins, and a brief to write strictly for undergraduates on more discrete topics, Raymond Betts, David Whittaker and David McIntyre opt for distinct interpretations of the mandate. Betts's and Whittaker's volumes belong to Routledge's new series The Making of the Contemporary World, which aims to provide cross-disciplinary and "challenging interpretations of contemporary issues and debates". Both Betts and Whittaker set out to provide inspiration and prompt critical questioning, and they succeed rather well within the confines of 100 pages. Whittaker couples a critical overview of the United Nation's development with an invitation to reflect on the organisation's likely and desirable futures.
Of the two, Betts's Decolonisation is more daring. His history of decolonisation eschews the standard "dates and events" approach almost entirely. Students will find rather little on the mechanics of the transfer of power, but may gain a sense of "texture" often lacking in conventional texts on decolonisation.
Pondering the underlying question of how far formal independence has meaningfully ended imperialism, Betts has more frequent recourse to novelists such as Wole Soyinka or Chinua Achebe than historians. His allusions to intepretational disputes could usefully be fleshed out with the disputants' names (to help orientate students in the literature of decolonisation), but Betts's real interest lies elsewhere: in introducing readers to the insights offered by post-colonial theory. At times, Betts seems both to underestimate the "materiality" of imperialism and to foreclose discussion of neo-colonialism (globalisation having made such analysis "irrelevant", he insists). However, in emphasising the colonisation of minds rather than the appropriation of materials, he offers a welcome provocation and a genuinely interdisciplinary approach to a topic too frequently ring-fenced by historians of empire.
McIntyre, on the other hand, provides a confessedly "unfashionable" political history of decolonisation. His British Decolonisation, 1946-97 (in Macmillan's British History in Perspective series) seeks to answer the when, why and how questions of British decolonisation in as uncontroversial a manner as possible, with preponderant emphasis on the when. Indeed, his analysis is polite to the point of complacency, stressing the orderly nature of Britain's transfers of power with little more than a nod to the brutality that accompanied, and arguably instigated, the process in territories such as Palestine, Malaya and Kenya.
Overall, his book illustrates the pitfalls of attempting to sever "facts" and "analysis", of the textbook writer trying to absent himself from his text. The bulk of McIntyre's "facts" relate to constitutional negotiations and arrangements. But when he finally declares his historiographical hand in the conclusion, he avers that his preferred answer to the why question is one that privileges the role of nationalist movements - though they have been almost invisible in the top-down portrait painted hitherto.
If students learn nothing else from recommended texts, it should surely be the inseparability of "facts" from "interpretation"? As some of these volumes show, synthesis need be neither soporific nor simplistic, but such texts work best where the author's voice sounds clearly throughout.
Susan Carruthers is lecturer in international politics, University of Wales, Aberystwyth.
United Nations in the Contemporary World. First Edition
Author - David J. Whittaker
ISBN - Susan Carruthers
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £8.99
Pages - 131