Book Review: The Great Trade Routes Edited by Philip Parker

Philip Parker edited together a collection of essays from various historians and archaeologists covering the movement of goods throughout history. This large format, coffee table-style book moves chronologically through history and examines what kinds of goods were traded and how that trade influenced civilizations throughout the world.

Admittedly, economics is a subject of which I’m only vaguely familiar with, and this book covers eras of history that are far outside my area of expertise. That being said, this was a surprisingly good, and detailed read for a coffee table book. Normally, you associate such large format books with generic and simplistic narratives that don’t offer any depth to their information, but I was surprised at the quality of the writing. The book is lavishly illustrated with photographs and illustrations. Some of the photos cover an entire two-page spread.

Since the book is a history of trade, it naturally examines the kinds of goods that were traded and how they were traded. Everything from foodstuffs and clothing, to technology and diseases are written about. Each chapter covers an era of history. The book starts with trade in the ancient world, and then moves on to classical times, the middle ages, age of discovery, age of empires, and eventually, into the modern day. Within each chapter are individual 2 – 3 page essays written by the various contributors on economic subjects pertinent to the times. For example, the chapter on the middle ages includes a section discussing the spread of the Black Death. There are also essays discussing the importance of specific commodities that were traded, such as coffee, salt, and coal, and what impact that trade had on countries and empires.

On a somewhat tangential note, some of the text can be fairly advanced. While nothing in the book really requires a degree in economics to understand, a basic understanding of economic concepts would certainly help the reader in their comprehension of the material. I’ve actually assigned some of the essays in this book as readings in a high school sophomore world history class. Specifically, the one on how World War I affected global trade and the one about the Great Depression. At least one student broke down into tears as they struggled with the reading, and I got one email from a parent regarding the difficulty their child was having with the text. This was from the parent of a student with an A-grade in the class, mind you. Anyway, the text can be a little challenging, but if you take the time to read it carefully, then it will be worthwhile. Just because it’s a “pretty coffee table book” doesn’t mean it’s been dumbed-down. It’s probably more suited for those with an 11-12th grade and college reading level.

I don’t have too many criticisms of the book, however, the text can be difficult to see in some places due to the poor contrast between the text and the background photo. Thankfully, this doesn’t occur too often. Also, don’t expect a tremendous amount of statistics in this book, although there are a number of graphs and tables to supplement the narrative.

More broadly, given that it’s more for the popular history market (and meant to sit on your coffee table), there are no footnotes or end notes. While it’s not a book on archaeology or scholarly history, it does have a decent bibliography with suggested further reading. The suggested sources are varied, and include works on economics, history, archaeology, and politics. Despite the lack of citations, as previously mentioned, that doesn’t mean the text is any less in-depth.

My final critique is that the vast majority of the book is focused on seaborne trade from region-to-region. Of course, there’s discussion of land routes such as the Silk Road and the use of camels and caravans, but not much is mentioned about modern trade methods, such as aircraft, trains, and trucks, until the very end of the book. Then again, consider that air freight accounts for a mere fraction of goods, particularly extremely high value and time-sensitive products, which are moved. Additionally, overland transport by truck and rail generally goes only a few hundred miles on average. Even in the present day more than 90% of trade goes by boat and it’s still the most efficient method for moving bulk cargoes.

Overall, the book is a very good and informative read for anyone interested in learning more about trade and economics throughout history. There are a great number of excellent photos and illustrations to provide the reader with an idea of the places and times discussed in the text. My criticisms are minor and mostly deal with the occasionally hard-to-read text or cursory examination of a specific topic. That being said, the text has depth and is occasionally challenging to read. Don’t let the format fool you into thinking this is a simplified history book.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

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