What was the strengths and limitation of John Reader's Africa: A Biography of the Continent as an introductory text to African history?
Because the question includes the qualifier “as an introductory text to African history,” the strengths of John Reader’s expansive volume on Africa far outweigh the weaknesses. Any study covering as much territory (both figuratively and literally) as Africa: A Biography of the Continent will invariably have some weaknesses. Entire volumes can be written on any one nation, tribe or phenomenon, whether it’s the history of tribal relations in present-day Kenya, the archaeological discoveries on the continent that date to the dawn of homo sapiens, the effects of colonialism on the continent’s fragile ethnic, cultural and environmental elements, the migrations of nomadic tribes in the desert north, or the threat to indigenous animals like the gorillas of west-central Africa. Lengthy, detailed studies can be and have been produced on nearly every topic pertaining to that immense and immensely diverse continent. Yet, Reader performs an admirable job of providing thousands of years of history and trenchant discussions of contemporary problems in a single, albeit lengthy volume. As an introductory text, that is all anyone can ask. Reading Africa: A Biography of the Continent will suffice to inculcate in one a great appreciation for the richness and complexity of Africa’s history. That is its greatest strength.
The weaknesses in Reader’s text are largely two-fold. The first is the inherent bias present in text by an “outsider.” Reader spent much of his adult life living in and studying Africa, from Cape Town in the deep south to Nairobi near the Horn. He loves Africa, and “knows” a great deal about it. As he himself attests in his preface, however, he is an Anglo-Saxon born in England and, as such, approaches his topic from an outsider’s perspective – not necessarily a weakness, as most history – much of it good -- has been written by so-called “outsiders.” To Reader, however, that constitutes a weakness of sorts and, in today’s more critical academic environment in which Edward Said becomes famous and much applauded for arguing that non-natives to the Middle East cannot possibly understand the Arab mentality or mentalities, qualifications such as Reader’s carry more analytical weight than they probably should.
More substantive is his recognition of his emotional attachment to the continent of Africa – an attachment that he suggests may sway his conclusions in directions not necessarily shared by others. As he noted in his preface, “. . .however much I have tried to adopt an objective point of view, this book invariably bears the marks of subjective influences.” That, again, can be said about virtually any history or political science text. All historians and political scientists bring to their work personal histories and biases that can, if not edited out, influence their presentations and conclusions.
Finally, as mentioned earlier, the sheer span of territory Reader covers in his text constitutes a weakness insofar as, by including so much in one volume, he invariably had to give short-shrift to many subjects.
The sanctity of his text is saved, however, by that qualifier noted above: Africa: A Biography of the Continent is approached by the student as an “introductory text.” An introductory text is not intended to provide every detail and every bit of history; it is intended to whet the reader’s appetite and expose him or her to the broader subject. As such, Reader’s book is more than a little useful as an introductory text.