From the Mixed-Up Bookshelves: Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa

The Reader’s Digest Illustrated History of South Africa (subtitled The Real Story), in the revised third edition, is the best historical textbook I have ever seen. I’d assign this book in a second in relevant classes.

Only problem is that it’s not available in the U.S. any longer. I forgot to check to see if they’re still selling it in South Africa. I once saw a stack of 40 of them selling for $1.99 each in the local Borders, and I bought every single one of them right there and then and then sold them to my Southern Africa class that semester so we could use it that semester. (I kept two for myself.)

Anybody who’s thinking of working on or publishing a textbook should take a look at it. First off, it’s just loaded with pictures, maps, and timelines, which are the main thing I really want a textbook to provide–not the crappy, amateurish or overly busy ones that often come in US-published textbooks. Second, the essays in the book are accessible without being condescending, and they have a distinctive point-of-view without being ideological or axe-grinding. They give a solid narrative and analytic overview of a lot of key events and themes in South African history, and lead nicely into the kind of analysis that monographs and more detailed works can provide.

By comparison, I find most of the textbooks on world, European and American history that major US publishers keep sending to me for examination (I don’t request them, they send out these twelve-ton doorstoppers with cheerful abandon) utterly turgid, blandly inoffensive, boring. I don’t generally teach courses for which they’re appropriate, but even if I did, I wouldn’t even dream of using them.

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