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concept to publication

Month: June 2011

About 1616: The World in Motion

The World in Motion
By Thomas Christensen

Forthcoming January 2012
from Counterpoint Press

The world of 1616 was a world of motion. Enormous galleons carrying silk and silver across the Pacific created the first true global economy, and the first megacorporations were emerging as economic powers rivaling political states. In Europe the deaths of Shakespeare and Cervantes marked the end of an era in literature. The spirit of the Renaissance was giving way to new attitudes that would lead to the age of revolutions. Kepler and Galileo, following Copernicus, claimed that the earth itself revolved. In Persia the philosopher Mulla Sadra said that motion was the very essence of existence. In East Asia the last native Chinese dynasty was entering its final years, while Japan was beginning its long period of shogunal rule. Artists there, as in many part of the world, were rethinking their connections to ancient traditions and experimenting with new directions. Women were redefining their roles in family and society. Slave trading was relocating large numbers of people, while others were migrating in search of new opportunities — a Japanese samurai became governor of a province in Thailand, an Ethiopian slave became the prime minister of a principality in India, a Powhatan maiden from Virginia attended a royal court masque in London. The first tourists, traveling not for trade or exploration but for personal fulfillment, were exploring this new globalized world: an Englishman walked across India, an Italian explored Muslim West Asia, a Chinese scholar spent decades compiling a massive account of journeys through China.

In 1616: The World in Motion Thomas Christensen illuminates these changes by focusing on a single riotous year, telling surprising stories of the men and women who were forging a new world and drawing unexpected connections across countries and continents as he traces the developments that would set the world on the march to modernity.

THOMAS CHRISTENSEN’s previous books include New World/New Words: Translating Latin American Literature, The U.S.–Mexican War, and The Discovery of America, as well as translations of books by such authors as Laura Esquivel, Carlos Fuentes, Julio Cortázar, Alejo Carpentier, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. He is director of publications at the Asian Art Museum in San Francico.


The above is very early promotional copy for my new book, tentatively scheduled for publication in January 2012.


At this time I need to update the cover image, which is still showing an older version of the subtitle. I love the cover painting, which combines Western, Hindu, Muslim, and other elements. Art critics call this style of painting, commissioned by the Mughal emperor Jahangir, “allegorical painting” — this painting suggests Jahangir’s (imagined) world domination. The painting, by Abul Hasan, depicts Jahangir shooting an arrow through the mouth of the decapitated head of Malik Ambar (a rebel leader; this part of the painting is hidden behind the book title cartouche). The painting dates, naturally, from 1616.

I suspect the subtitle may change.

I’ll make this a sticky post at the top of the 1616 category page and update it as the prepublication process moves along. I’ll just update the time stamp to keep this at the top of the category page.

Help wanted: Italian painting specialist

quirinal fresco

Help! For the book I’m working on I’m trying to identify the painters of these frescos in the Quirinale (the Italian equivalent of the White House). They depict foreign ambassadors to the Vatican, and I’d also like to identify the ambassadors — but first things first.

quirinale frescos

I’ve consulted several books in both English and Italian but remain uncertain about the attributions. My best guess at this point is that the top two are mainly by Carlo Saraceni, the third one by Agostino Tassi, and the last one perhaps by Giovanni Lanfranco.

quirinale frescos

Among the ambassadors are Robert Sherley, Aliqoli Beg (not entirely sure who that is), Emanuele Ne Vunda, Hasekura Tsunenaga, and Luis Sotelo (the last a Franciscan missionary and not an ambassador per se). Can the Turkish and Persian ambassadors be distinguished by their styles of turbans?

Even if you don’t know the answers to these questions, if anyone can point me in the direction of an obliging Italian painting specialist I could be in touch with about this it would be a great help. Thanks!

Monkeys and squirrels in trees

This image is by the great Mughal painter Abul Hasan (I devote a few pages to him in the book I’m currently working on). Usually called “Squirrels in a Plane Tree,” it was painted by the artist when he was about seventeen. The solid flat background and stylized elements reflect the Persian painting tradition. Later Hasan would move more toward Western-style naturalism.

When I showed this image to Ellen she said, “Oh, the reason you like it is because it looks just like Caps for Sale.” “You’re right!” I said. I hadn’t thought of that comparison, but when our girls were little we used to enjoy that book by Esphyr Slobodkina. It was about a cap peddlar who carried his caps stacked on top of his head. One day he went to sleep under a tree (the cover inverts this, with the peddlar in the tree and monkeys on the ground).

caps for sale cover

While he was sleeping his caps were stolen. Looking up, he saw many monkeys in the tree, each wearing one of his caps. “You monkeys you!” he demanded. “You give me back my caps!” (Eventually he gets them back.)

Stylistically the Caps illustrations and the Hasan painting are not as close as memory made them seem. One of the most obvious differences is that the trunks and branches of the Caps tree are nothing but white space, an interesting strategy. By contrast, in Hasan’s painting the trunk and branches of the tree are one of the most volumetrically shaped elements in the painting.

Despite the differences they do share something of a similar spirit. And both are wonderful.



When you attempt something ambitious you’re bound to make some mistakes along the way. I’m sure the book I’m working on will have its fair share (recently I realized I had confused the Mughal painters Bichitr and Bishandas). But sometimes a mistake is so stunning that it’s hard to recover from.

I was finding Charles H. Parker’s Global Interactions in the Early Modern Age, 1400-1800 generally interesting and credible. Then I came upon this sentence:

The lack of any indigenous pack animals, except for the llama, and the absence of a wheel meant that humans formed the primary source of portage in Mesoamerican trade.

Probably another reason Mesoamericans depended on humans for portage is that the nearest of their “indigenous” llamas was nearly 2000 miles away in the South American Andes.

This reminds me of a visit to the market in Chichicastenango in Guatemala a few decades ago. The blanket vendors all touted their blankets as pura lana, which means “pure wool.” At the market I met a foolish young Spanish-challenged gringo carrying a blanket he had bought. He’d paid a high price, but it was worth it, he assured me, proudly proclaiming it “pure llama!”


Image from felipe ascencio‘s photostream.

The Naipaul Test

V. S. Naipaul continues to provoke and offend. In a talk at the Royal Geographic Society he said:

I read a piece of writing and within a paragraph or two I know whether it is by a woman or not. I think [it is] unequal to me….[A] woman, she is not a complete master of a house, so that comes over in her writing too…My publisher, who was so good as a taster and editor, when she became a writer, lo and behold, it was all this feminine tosh. I don’t mean this in any unkind way.

Nothing needs to be said. The statement speaks for itself.

The Guardian did a follow-up, posting short passages from various writings. Now you can test your mettle against Mr. Naipaul. I scored 7 out of 10 correct. The Guardian‘s quiz informs me “Not bad, but you’re no Sir Vidia.” That’s probably a good thing.

Take the test.


Image via The Telegraph

Randomized Editing

I have a month to polish up the book I’m currently working on, and I’m experimenting with a randomized editing process.

Most writers spend a lot of time on the beginnings of their books, and rightly so since they set the tone and either welcome or drive away potential readers. Endings get some attention as well, but authors and readers alike bog down in the problematic middle, especially around three-fifths of the way through.

In revising, you can start from the beginning and just go as far as you can, or all the way to the end, repeatedly, but this will likely result in a mid-book slump. You can also just identify the most important parts, or the parts that need the most work, and concentrate on them, sanding down the rough patches one after another.

If you’re working in short bursts — in breaks in your day job, for example — you might want to test the water by just dipping in here and there. But, if you’re like me, your dipping is not likely to be very random, so you’re not really doing a good test.

There’s a site called random.org, where you can generate a random sequence of numbers within a certain interval. According to the site, “The randomness comes from atmospheric noise, which for many purposes is better than the pseudo-random number algorithms typically used in computer programs.”

A random sequence, as opposed to a random set where numbers can be repeated, is like pulling numbers from a hat, where once a number is used it can’t be used again. So I’ve generated a random sequence of numbers between 1 and 384, and I’m reviewing pages in the that order. I’ll do this a few times with a few different random sequences.

Is this a good idea? I’m not sure, but I think it might be a helpful corrective, or at least complement, to the kind of directed attention that you’re going to give your manuscript anyway.


image from kevindooley’s photostream


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