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The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World

4.11  ·  Rating details ·  569 ratings  ·  111 reviews
"Enlightening, compassionate, superb" --John Le Carr

Winner of the 2018 Cundill History Prize

A New York Times Book Review Notable Book of 2017
One of the New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2017

A visionary exploration of the life and times of Joseph Conrad, his turbulent age of globalization and our own, from one of the most exciting young historians writing today

Paperback, 400 pages
Published November 6th 2018 by Penguin Books (first published October 19th 2017)
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Dec 27, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"History is like therapy for the present: it makes it talk about its parents."
- Maya Jasanoff, The Dawn Watch


I should admit I was attracted to the book, while browsing at Las Vegas' fantastic bookstore Writers Block by four things: 1. the art (done by the Bill Bragg), 2. the le Carré blurb (if you don't know, late le Carré has a heavy Conrad flavor, 3. Conrad himself. I've read about 2/3 of what he has produced and love him more with every word, 4. the concept of Conrad as the dawn watch of
Well, I did not love this book. Perhaps my four humours are out of balance but I was very much tempted to abandon this book, because life is finite and it felt as though this book was standing in the way of reading other, finer books, but other people seem to have liked it well enough so it might well be just be me, but my advice would be to steer clear of this one, it is not so much bad, as not worth while, annoying at times on the horizons I caught glimpses of more (view spoiler) ...more
Nov 15, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: bbc radio listeners
 Anyone could be savage
Everywhere could go dark

Description: Joseph Conrad was born Jozef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski in 1857, in a region of Poland then controlled by Russia, Europe's most autocratic empire. By 1862, his father had been arrested for fomenting revolution and his family sentenced to exile, where a series of miserable forced relocations precipitated the illnesses that killed both of Conrad's parents before he was eleven. At sixteen,
Chris Gardom
A brand spanking biography of my favourite author. What glee, what delight, what anticipation. What a disappointment. Maybe the toe curling use of ‘gotten’ throughout the tome did for me and my English snobbery. I’m no academic but if a book pitched by a Harvard scholar as an examination of ‘Joseph Conrad in a global world’ has got ‘gotten’ peppered through it then its contribution to literature about literature borders on the illiterate. The author takes a cliched sea journey in the wake of ...more
I went into this book as a Philistine who had never read any of Joseph Conrad's work, and knew not much about his life other than that he was Polish. Jasanoff assures right in the preface that she's hoping to reach audiences of any level of Conrad expertise, so that may not affect my reaction as much as I suspect. Still, take this with the appropriate number of salt grains.

While walking through something like a chronological biography, Jasanoff also ties the narrative to the specific Conrad
From BBC Radio 4 - Book of the Week:
The story of Joseph Conrad, abridged in five parts by Katrin Williams. He was the author of Heart Of Darkness, Lord Jim, and sailed the seas..

1. After the death of his father, young Conrad is in the care of his Uncle Tadeuz for some years. One day he announces his plans to go to sea, to travel to the great port of Marseilles and find a ship. How will his uncle react?

2. It's 1878 and that teeming metropolis called London excites Conrad. From here he will board
Jan 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Beneath Maya Jasanoff’s breezy style, stuffing cash into her shoes for safety as she retraces Joseph Conrad’s route along the River Congo, lies a perceptive portrayal of “what made the writer tick”, although of course we can never really know. She succeeds in distilling from clearly thorough research a telling selection of incidents, quotations, and her own insightful conclusions in a biography of only 315 pages, rather than the ever more frequent 800 plus page doorstopper.

It is unnecessary to
Mary Jo
Jul 15, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book can be described in just one word: brilliant! Maya Jasanoff takes the life and work of novelist Joseph Conrad and uses them as a lens to peer into the heart of international capitalism in the nineteenth century. Conrad was a sailor before he became a novelist and his voyages form both the spine of the book and the core of his writing. According to Jasanoff his vision was both bleak and prescient. As she notes: "Today's hearts of darkness are to be found in other places where civilizing ...more
Chris Wharton
A critical examination of Conrad’s life and writings in their late 19th-, early 20th-century historical contexts, when the Polish immigrant‒turned‒British seaman‒turned‒writer lived, sailed, and wrote through political, socioeconomic, and technological changes that presaged the modern interconnected global world. In fluent, pleasure-to-read prose, unstilted and not at all academic (though thoroughly sourced), Jasanoff, a Harvard professor of history and literature, shows how Conrad’s writings ...more
Mar 02, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This isn’t really a full biography as much as a reflection on Conrad’s life and several of his major works. Jasanoff is driven to understand the world that shaped a writer she loves including both the romance and the workaday world of the sea, the sense of alienation and otherness that permeates his work and his ability to put us into worlds that are both unfamiliar and frightening. Conrad’s fiction often focuses on characters who confront some critical choice only to face consequences more ...more
This was a disappointing book. For the most part it's a straight up biography (or literary biography). I'm no Conrad expert, but I'm hard pressed to think the overwhelming bulk of this book hasn't been told a thousand times elsewhere. As to what I take for the original bits, they're at the margins of the book: the introductory and closing sections. One of the cover blurbs, if I recall, characterized the book as a blend of travel memoir, literary criticism, etc. There's virtually no travel ...more
Michael David Cobb
What's rather astounding about this book is that it contains the antidote to the hysteria surrounding 'dead white European males' and their influence on Western thought by using the typical rhetoric used to charge the 'global white supremacist movement' and investigates it all. It's hardly the point of understanding Joseph Conrad, the author which this book provides ample to study. But that such notions of toxicity are handled in detail is what made this something of a surprise to me.

I've only
Maya Jasanoff delves into the world of Joseph Conrad, the immigrant from Poland to England, and the literary giant whose “Heart of Darkness” challenges both students and teachers, in this biographical (and historical) analysis of Conrad’s place in Western literature.

I found this work of nonfiction insightful and relevant to my teaching and student’s reading of Conrad. We see Conrad struggle w/ experimental narrative forms, and we see the ways Conrad’s own seafaring informs his texts.
Gregory Lamb
Feb 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Jasanoff's passion for detail in this captivating non-fictional presentation of Joseph Conrad's life, his work, and the character of his environment during times of change, comes through on every page.

"The Dawn Watch" is dense with detail, but not in any way tedious. As an avid reader of Conrad's classics, I was drawn to this book and believe no fan of Conrad's should miss at the chance to gain further insights about his life and times by reading it. Readers with an interest in history would
Sympathetic, beautifully written, thought-provoking reading of Conrad in the context of globalization.
Jake Goretzki
Oct 30, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2018
Extremely readable and nicely uncluttered (sticking to Heart of Darkness, Nostromo, Lord Jim and a few other titles helps). Not sure how far this goes to being proper biography though - but perhaps that wasn't the mission.

Full of cracking anecdotes and some utterly knockout Victorian superheroes: I mean Cunninghame-Graham, man. Jesus, what an amazing life. Fascinating too to see how JC knew Roger Casement; the observation that he was 'all emotion' is so smart - one gets the impression that
I am aware of the criticism of Conrad by Africans. I found this book immensely helpful in understanding the good and bad of the man and his work. One quote from Conrad:

There is a bond between us and that humanity so far away, I am content to sympathize with common mortals no matter where they live; in houses or in tents, in streets under a fog, or in the forest behind the dark line of dismal mangroves that fringe the vast solitude of the sea.

On p.224 I recorded: "What made the difference between
A book that amply demonstrates that globalization is not a new phenomenon. Jassanoff’s project is clever and illuminating. She examines Joseph Conrad’s life before he became a best-selling author. This in light of the experiences that formed the themes of his book. For example, in 1890 Conrad began work for the Belgium trading company and his observation of the cruelties being inflicted in the Congo by Europeans informed Heart of Darkness. Conrad vigorously campaigned against the abuses, ...more
Scott Pomfret
This work is an odd amalgam of pointless personal travelogue (which feels like padding to make the work history length); summaries and excerpts of certain of Conrad's novels; a brief Conrad biography; and a very slim history of Conrad's world. No clear thesis emerged, either situating the material in Conrad's time or situating it in the present. Indeed, the epilogue seemed to suggest the world's are so different in fact if not in theme as to make them virtually incomparable. Worst of all, none ...more
Apr 15, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Not having read very much Conrad (Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent) this turned into a bit of a slog and I skimmed the second half. But that's more my problem than Jasanoff's who clearly worked to the bone to gain more insight into the socio-political world which gave Conrad such insight into our own.
John David
Whenever the publication of a new book presents me with the opportunity to revisit an old author, I always relish the chance of reading them in another light. This is especially true with authors I never enjoyed, including Joseph Conrad. Despite being a much better stylist than Hemingway, the actual content of Conrad’s novels always struck me as highly resonant of Hemingway: what Gore Vidal once only half tongue-in-cheek referred to as “Field & Stream stories for boys.” Maya Jasanoff’s book ...more
Terry Scott
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Excellant biography of a remarkable man. A must read for anyone born in Poland and moved to make England a new home!
Richard Thompson
I have loved the writing of Joseph Conrad since my tenth grade English teacher showed me how to read "Heart of Darkness" as a Freudian metaphor for a descent into the subconscious. I have gone on to read "Lord Jim," "Nostromo," "Victory," "The Secret Agent," "Under Western Eyes," "Almayer's Folly," "Typhoon," "The Shadow Line," "The Secret Sharer" and "Nigger of the Narcissus." I thought most of them were fantastically good, and the worst of them were still well written and worth reading.

Carl Rollyson
May 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Joseph Conrad (born Konrad Korzeniowski) has been fortunate in his biographers, beginning with Richard Curle and continuing with major biographies by Jocelyn Baines, Frederick Karl, John Stape, and most importantly, Zdzisław Najder, who did so much to explore the novelist’s Polish beginnings. This short list omits other important Conrad biographies, not to mention generations of penetrating research by scholars. What, then, can be added at this late date? Maya Jasanoff’s subtitle provides the ...more
Larry Jarocki
Feb 26, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A good read, but odd in content at times. The author does a great job of connecting Conrad's life to his works, but sometimes she goes into a bit too much detail on the works themselves. She gives pages-long summaries of plot where not so much is needed (if you're reading this, you've probably read Heart of Darkness at least once). The writing itself is lovely; often I found myself marveling at particular sentences or passages. Worth reading, especially if you're teaching Heart of Darkness, as I ...more
A cursory look at Joseph Conrad's life, times, influences, and writing. It's a speedy, thrilling read - but I wanted to spend more time diving into these ideas of colonialism, empire, and power, all of which make Conrad still vibrant and potent to readers. Points for the author to get me to reconsider my opinions of Lord Jim and The Secret Agent, but my mind hasn't changed on those even after subsequent readings.

Oh Conrad, my Conrad! Such a talent.
Aaron Jette
This book is neither for those who have read much Conrad not for those who have read much world history. It provides synopses of his major books and the historical and personal events that informed them. The main advantage this book has over other biographies or histories of the period, or for that matter most of Conrad's books is that it is readable and relatively brief. Otherwise it provides little insight of psychological, literary, or historical interest.
Anthony Peter
Aug 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Thought I’d act on the principle of ‘Use it or lose it’, and found this book in the local Library. The date stamps show that Conrad must be a popular author in Calderdale – 4 borrowings since March.

Conrad tends to frustrate me. I don’t find his style easy and novels I’m supposed to admire I find difficult to be objective about as I struggle through what seem to me to be interminable passages of abstraction. ‘Heart of Darkness’ and ‘The Secret Agent’ usually produce internalised cries of ‘Get on
Jun 14, 2019 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: read-biography
This is another entry in the "interesting-thoughts-I-had-while-reading-Author-X" genre, made possible perhaps because fewer people have the time and patience to read the traditional, 900-page, cradle-to-grave literary biography. Your enjoyment of this genre is likely to vary according to, first, your interest in the subject-author, and your enjoyment of the thoughts of the writer-author. A few months ago, I read another entry in this genre about Ezra Pound, which was more difficult to like than ...more
Apr 23, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Maya Jasanoff traces here the life and writings of Joseph Conrad, the great novelist of European Imperialism. Starting from his childhood as a Pole in Czarist Russia, of a nation that had ceased to exist as a state, Conrad had many stints on merchant sail ships that plied the Indian Ocean taking European traders oiling their empires. As the sailships were eventually replaced by superior steam technology, Conrad found his way to the heart of the maritime empires, Britain. English was Conrad's ...more
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Maya Jasanoff’s teaching and research focus on the history of modern Britain and the British Empire, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her first book, Edge of Empire: Lives, Culture, and Conquest in the East, 1750-1850, investigates British expansion in India and Egypt through the lives of art collectors. It was awarded the 2005 Duff Cooper Prize and was a book of the year selection in ...more
“Anyone could be savage. Everywhere could go dark” 0 likes
“All writing is an act of translation.” 0 likes
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