A Week in Books

By Tonkin, Boyd | The Independent (London, England), May 1, 2003 | Go to article overview
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A Week in Books


Tonkin, Boyd, The Independent (London, England)


"`WHAT IS the use of a book,' thought Alice, `without pictures or conversations?'" Modern publishing may not look very much like a Wonderland. But it has taken Alice's first demand to heart. Ingenious picture research, intelligent design and high-quality reproduction routinely burnish the appeal of non-fiction for the general reader.

Pessimists might say that, as children of the television era, we now crave a sweetening dose of eye-candy. More positively, you could treat this itch for imagery as overdue recognition that visual culture can act as a key to unlock any epoch. Simon Schama - no mean art historian himself - provides an especially enlightening selection of plates in the three volumes of his History of Britain (just published as a paperback set by BBC Worldwide at pounds 12.99 each).

Squeezed between inward-looking academia and the ephemeral mass market, non-specialist historians in particular need the boost that attractive illustration brings. For the most part, they get it, with some imprints more generous than others. Still, it's very rare to find a peach of a subject - a gripping narrative history of a splendid dynasty - completely betrayed by a cheapskate publisher. Yet that is what has happened with Abraham Eraly's The Mughal Throne, a richly readable account of the first six Indian Muslim emperors. From Babur, born in 1483, to Aurangzeb, who died in 1707, their lavish courts became bywords for opulence. From the Taj Mahal down to the humble chintz, through architecture, painting, textiles and jewellery, the Mughals presided over one of the greatest visual cultures.

To release a colourfully written chronicle of such a golden age without a solitary picture or map - not even a fuzzy snapshot of the Taj - seems like an insult to reader and author. Would Weidenfeld & Nicolson have launched a plump popular history of Renaissance Italy utterly devoid of images - without a single Leonardo or Botticelli?

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