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Africa: A Biography of the Continent

4.17  ·  Rating details ·  1,695 ratings  ·  150 reviews
"Awe-inspiring . . . a masterly synthesis."
--The New York Times Book Review

"Deeply penetrating, intensely thought-provoking and thoroughly informed . . . one of the most important general surveys of Africa that has been produced in the last decade." --The Washington Post

In 1978, paleontologists in East Africa discovered the earliest evidence of our divergence from the ape
Paperback, 816 pages
Published September 7th 1999 by Vintage (first published October 30th 1997)
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 ·  1,695 ratings  ·  150 reviews

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Feb 22, 2007 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: Anyone with a passing interest in humanity.
John Reader has an agenda. He loves Africa, a continent that has been misunderstood and misused by Westerners for centuries, and he wants you to love it, too. Reader approaches his “biography of a continent” with unbounded ambition and intelligence, gracefully synthesizing academic arguments from disparate fields to construct a portrait of humanity’s first homeland that is insightful and reverent. The scope is staggering, with detours into geology, evolutionary biology, anthropology, archeology ...more
Vast, kaleidoscopic--an ambitious tour through millions of years of African history and prehistory. There is so much to like and be impressed with here that I feel somewhat churlish rating it three rather than four stars, but the book suffers from its own ambition and, especially towards the end, from too scattered a focus. Still, for those looking for a thoughtful and intriguing introduction to a very big and complex land, Africa: A Biography of the Continent deserves to be well up on the TBR l ...more
Jenny (Reading Envy)
In my attempt to read more from and about Africa, this was a year-long group read with the Great African Reads group. True to form, I kept with the schedule up until July, and found myself needing to read the second half this week.

Can one book tell the story of an entire continent? Consider that the story of one empire's rise and fall takes six volumes (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire)!

And then. Then I found that Reader, who is not himself African, starts at the very beginning. As in,
Apr 13, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Review to follow... Excellent book, though. A thoroughly digested and thoughtful account of a million years of history... Literally, a biography of the continent.
Dec 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Adam by: Dar airport bookshelf
Before I picked up this book, I had a relatively rich smattering of knowledge of Africa - particularly my trips to Sierra Leone and Tanzania and the reading I'd done associated with them. However, all these readings served to emphasize my lack of a broad, strong foundation of knowledge about African history. I was desperate for books by the end of my study abroad in Tanzania, which led me to browse the airport bookstore while waiting for a flight to Kilimanjaro, where I came across this enticing ...more
Mindy McAdams
Jan 05, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Recommends it for: those interested in any aspect of Africa
Shelves: africa, nonfiction
One of the more interesting nonfiction books I've ever read — the subtitle of this book is accurate: "A Biography of the Continent." While anthropologists criticize it for leaving out some of the important archaeological finds, and political scientists/historians criticize it for failing to detail every coup and skirmish, I have no similar complaints. As a general reader, poorly educated in all aspects of Africa's past, I found fascinating new information in every chapter in this book.

The reason
Lauren Albert
Oct 18, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history-africa
Reader gives a very good overview of an enormous topic. The book is literally a biography of the continent, not just the people. So he gives an overview of the development of the earth and of Africa in particular. I do not agree with the extent of his "nature" winning over "nurture" argument but it is an interesting one. ...more
May 22, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: nonfiction
Pretty much the best most definitive continental overview you will ever get. From early geology becoming geography to the present and everything in between without any of that obnoxious humanitarian racism so prevalent in talking about this subject.
Tim Martin
Aug 30, 2012 rated it it was amazing
_Africa: A Biography of the Continent_ by John Reader is a very well-named book, a through and engaging look at the epic story of this land, from its geological origins to its most recent political struggles. Though a thick book at 682 pages (plus appendices, endnotes, and bibliography), it is a wonderful read.

The introductory section laments that Africa has been "woefully misunderstood and misused by the rest of the world," and that humanity does not properly "recognize its debts and obligatio
Jul 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
An incredibly well-researched book on a very complex continent. John Reader begins at the beginning. Africa IS the beginning. The beginning of humanity, the cradle of all that is in the world today. The fact that the Western world has historically considered itself superior to the African continent is the tragedy of the human spirit. The damage that we in the Western world have done to the African continent will take many lifetimes for those original humans to overcome. The story is told from th ...more
Kshitiz Goliya
Oct 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
Africa; the cradle of the human civilization. It is the land where three million years ago Humans originated and two million years thereafter, started walking on their feet.

As someone curious about the history of this continent, discussed not very frequently in international affairs or even in our course books, I was expecting an introduction to its political history. That is what a history scholar would have been more attracted to.

However, John Reader surprised and subsequently mesmerized me b
Jun 15, 2008 rated it liked it
This is a big book with big aims: to tell, over the course of seven hundred pages, the story of sub-Saharan Africa from its geological formation through to the mid 1990s. Considering the magnitude of what he was attempting, Reader did well. It's obviously well-researched, cleanly written and accessible even for people like me, who know shamefully little about Africa. Yet I think the strain of compressing so much into such a small space began to tell on him after about the first two hundred and f ...more
Jun 17, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Some of the material covered here, on things like fossils and plate tectonics, might be more technical than a general reader (like me!) would be comfortable with.

That said, this is a well-written, absorbing, and commendably comprehensive account of Africa's history. The passages dealing with slavery are very fair, but still harrowing, and the account of the 1994 Rwanda massacre is chilling.

Most chilling of all is that, as that awful thing was happening, South Africa was installing Nelson Mandela
Brian Hilliker
Feb 22, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
I have never read a more comprehensive dive into Africa than this. It is filled with nuance, understanding, and a desire to provide the African continent the justice it has long deserved. Reader clearly understands that African people suffer from the same sins of the rest of the world. However, he does not, nor should he, sugarcoat the extent of European oppression. The book ends with a mixture of hope and trepidation as to how the future of Africa may turn out. May it be one of success rather t ...more
Bryanna Plog
Jun 30, 2019 rated it liked it
While there was a lot of good information here, I somehow wanted more. I hoped for a little more information about different African civilizations and cultures as well as the 19th and 20th centuries and colonialism. Still a nice introduction to many aspects about Africa, however.
Stan  Prager
Apr 17, 2021 rated it it was amazing
Africa. My youth largely knew of it only through the distorted lens of racist cartoons peopled with bone-in-their-nose cannibals, B-grade movies showcasing explorers in pith helmets who somehow always managed to stumble into quicksand, and of course Tarzan. It was still even then sometimes referred to as the “Dark Continent,” something that was supposed to mean dangerous and mysterious but also translated, for most of us, into the kind of blackness that was synonymous with race and skin color. ...more
Andrew Niederhauser
Jan 16, 2015 rated it really liked it
I wish this system allowed half-stars. This book's merits are only slightly diminished by it's weaknesses, but a five-star rating is impossible. When I initially approached this, I anticipated learning about each individual nation as it was formed. I was pleasantly surprised at the sheer breadth of the work, including aspects of geology, evolutionary science, genetics, linguistics, and countless other specialized fields all collected in one sweeping narrative. From the construction of the contin ...more
Byron Rempel
Jun 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
Seven hundred pages of a continental biography was initially daunting, and it took me three and a half months to consume the thing. But as John Reader covers Africa from Pangea to the birth of Homo Sapiens to Nelson Mandela's election, it's necessarily still a survey. There was a whole chapter devoted just to the way the human body cools itself differently from other beasts. That suited me fine for my purposes, which was to try and understand a continent after coming back from a two-week safari ...more
Jul 02, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A truly incredible book. The author brings together geology, geography, history, economics, politics, linguistics and several other disciplines into a sweeping and breathtaking description of Africa. What can one say about a book which begins at 3.7 billion years ago as the continent forms, moves on to a "mere" 5 million years ago when the first humanoids are said to appear in Tanzania, describes how a mere handful of humans (maybe as few as 50) made the journey out of Africa 200,000 years ago t ...more
Nicholas Whyte[return][return]This came up in recommendations after I read Fage's History of Africa last year. It starts awfully well, with sections on African geology in the context of continental drift, and on the evolution of humanity in the context of climate change.[return][return]From then on I found it a bit patchy. Fage's book was good on the general ebb and flow of states and cultures; Reader prefers to take particular vignettes, and then is a bit frustrating ...more
Ryan Murdock
Jan 10, 2013 rated it really liked it
I read this book in the lead up to my recent trip to Namibia. Reader provides a great broad-brush overview of African history from an Africa-centred perspective, drawing heavily on the evolution of hominids, geology and geography to paint a very different picture than what you read in most post-colonial modern history texts.

Reader turns many widely-accepted notions of Africa on their heads. The competition for resources is seen as much more important than warfare, small peaceful communities as m
Jul 25, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not recommended - surely there are a few other books that better cover evolution, the geology of Africa, and its history and pre-history.

The New York Times Book Review is quoted on the cover: "... a masterly synthesis." A synthesis, yes, but not a masterly one. (Here I'd recommend "From Dawn to Decadence".)

Reader does well with several parts (evolutionary theory, several ancient civilizations like Aksum, several European schemes like King Leopold II's Belgium) but could have used stronger editin
Konstantin Kirilov
Feb 07, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: still-to-finish
A tremendously informative book that IMO should be compulsive reading. The only issue I have is that it is dated, since the narrative ends around the mid 1990-s. Not sure if there is an updated version, but would love to read one either way. Highly, highly recommended!
Marc Menz
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history, africa
An immense book! Such a vast breadth of African history. I was most impressed with how well (and at the same time terrifyingly) portrayed 400 years of slavery was described from the African viewpoint. The disaster of Europeans and colonialism - but from the point of view of the locals, just how disruptive it was on their communities and rulers for centuries.

It’s a challenging read, from slavery, colonialism, the horrors of the Congo, wars and even genocide - however one gets the sense that on t
Emily Alp
Feb 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This is one of my favorite books of all time. Helped that I read it while looking out at the Tugan Hills in Kenya from Lake Baringo. Still, it's a beautiful addition to the knowledge on international development. Jared Diamond (Guns, Germs and Steel), and Yuval Noah Harari (Sapiens) are the other two that would be great to add to this perspective.

I particularly love how Reader takes the first one hundred pages of the book to talk about the geology of the continent and the implications of that g
Jan 23, 2008 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: nonfiction
An amazing introduction to African history and politics. As other reviewers have mentioned, the breadth of the of the subject matter is simply amazing. Reader covers millions of years of history in just 682 pages, giving enough of an overview of the continent to get you started towards understanding the continent.

I wish the end notes had been more extensive. I found myself turning to them, hoping for more information, and finding only a citation. And more/better maps would have been appreciated
Joshua Hedlund
Dec 06, 2020 rated it really liked it
This is a giant tome, attempting to cover the entire history of Africa from its geologic and anthropological beginnings (at least as it was commonly believed to be circa late 1990s) all the way to the modern era (that is, circa late 1990s). It is an engaging read, despite its scope and length, and its reputation is deserved. Some of the things I learned include:

- The devastation of the slave trade on the continent. From time to time I have heard almost-apologetic softenings of the era of Western
Emerson Grossmith
Apr 20, 2018 rated it really liked it
This is a massive tome and a lot of area to cover from the beginning of time to the present for the African continent. Considering all the scuttlebutt these days about where our species originated from--maybe there is too much spent on Lucy from Ethiopia, the Leakey's seminal palaeo work at Koobi Fara and Olduvai but their research needs to be addressed nonetheless. The problem with palaeontology is that everything is set in stone until the next femur is found, it's kind of like re-inventing the ...more
Sep 13, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: politics
I read Meredith's "The Fortunes of Africa" & Reader's "Africa: The Biography of the Continent" at the same time & found remarkable similarities in the two works so I will review them together. Both are large volumes covering the history, geography, people, & colonization of the continent. Probably 90% or even more of the material covered overlaps and very few instances are found where the authors contradict each other in their conclusions. Readers' work covers more detail of the prehuman history ...more
Jul 20, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Immense respect for this work's audacious scope, and largely successful execution. I think some reviews here are too academic or too agenda-based to be fair.

This book isn't "the complete picture" of Africa, and it would be naïve to présume the oldest continent could be summarized in 600 pages. It drags in the middle third, and is more stolid than prosaic.

What is did exceptionally well was allow someone like me, to fill a gaping void in my history of Africa, and provide me enough structural know
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An author and photojournalist with more than forty years' professional experience. He holds an Honorary Research Fellowship in the Department of Anthropology at U.C.L. ...more

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