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The Eastern Question


The Eastern Question

THE EASTERN QUESTION by Ted Danforth is exactly the type of book I wish I could have studied from in high school. After the events of 9/11, Danforth sought to answer the question: Why did this happen? When he searched, he discovered that “what might seem to be the multitudinous and arbitrary events of history...are manifestations of dynamics that go back to the beginning of recorded time.” The rest of the book walks through the conflicts of East vs. West from the beginning of recorded time --- starting at the Byzantine/Ottoman Empire and ending at the Ukraine Crisis of 2014. Opposite every page of text is a map or illustration drawn by Danforth, because as he studied the history of the world he began to see it visually laid out. These illustrations attempt to explain the origin and consequences of the Eastern Question.

The illustrations make the book. Though sometimes the maps can be overwhelming --- labeling every country in the region while sometimes spanning over thousands of years and showing the progress of different nations and empires --- they are often helpful. They allow the reader to see history in a new way, usually as a metaphor. “Imagine him [Attila the Hun] as a pool player striking the racked-up balls at the beginning of the game and, with one powerful strike of the cue, scattering the tribes of Europe...” is how a page might start. Then, on the next page, will be an illustration of Attila playing pool. The balls are labeled, their trajectory shown. Danforth makes the facts digestible instead of dry. His way of explaining them is so different and sometimes bizarre that it forces the reader to re-think bits of history they were sure they knew. This takes history and gives it context, forces us to think of the consequence of every action and their implication on the future.

"THE EASTERN QUESTION by Ted Danforth is exactly the type of book I wish I could have studied from in high school.... Reading THE EASTERN QUESTION made me think of current events in a historical context, which was exactly what Danforth intended."

Even disregarding how much the illustrations aid the text, the drawings themselves are phenomenal. They're not perfect. If you look closely at them, you can see the erased pencil marks, the places where Danforth didn't quite trace over words correctly. Some lines shake, some maps that are supposed to represent the same place don't look exactly the same. But with every stray pencil mark, you can practically see the artist hunched over his paper, trying so hard to explain what he's trying to explain. All those little mistakes make the picture more intimate, so it almost feels like a professor in a tiny class stumbling over his words because he's so excited to explain a concept, instead of a sleepy, rehearsed speech in a lecture hall.

The biggest issue with THE EASTERN QUESTION is not that it’s too long, but that it’s too short. This book walks us through the entire history of the world in a little over 200 pages, almost half of those are illustrations. Though it's really admirable to put all that history into one book, it makes every sentence so dense that they have to be read twice; if you accidentally lose focus for a minute or two, you might have skipped over a few hundred years. There are so many characters in the history of the world, and only a few of them get enough attention to really explain who they are. This book might have been better in two volumes instead of one --- still short, but a little less packed, a little more room to breathe and understand. Danforth suggests in his note to the reader to “read it first as a story, flipping through the drawings, glancing at the first text paragraphs, which serve as captions.” I tried this, and I'm not sure how effective it is; the first text paragraphs sometimes make very little sense without the context of the entire previous page.

Reading THE EASTERN QUESTION made me think of current events in a historical context, which was exactly what Danforth intended. It made me think of modern countries as parts of previous empires. Certain things clicked all of a sudden, just from examining one of his illustrations. It was dense, yes, but once I worked through the sentences, history was re-aligned from a scatter-point graph into a flow chart. If you want to understand or re-understand history, if you want the sort of lesson that you should have had back in high school, by all means read this book.

Reviewed by Jess Costello on November 20, 2015

The Eastern Question
by Ted Danforth

  • Publication Date: October 27, 2015
  • Genres: Graphic Novel, History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 264 pages
  • Publisher: Anekdota
  • ISBN-10: 0692308407
  • ISBN-13: 9780692308400