Himalaya by John Keay [9/10]

I had never read any of redoubtable historian/writer John Keay’s previous, lauded works, so I came to Himalaya: Exploring the Roof of the World with both enthusiasm and hesitation. My intrinsic interest in the region of the Himalayas (apparently it is pronounced him-aaah-lay-ah) has always been cursory, but I’m planning an adventure in Nepal, nestling as a thin rectangle just south of the enormous mountain ranges, midway between the extremes, so my read was both dutiful and, at first, tardy. I need not have worried: the most wonderful features of the book are the author’s soaring, often caustic style and his perfect control of gyrating plot lines between ages and themes. He tackles the region’s geology (orogeny is a term he informed me of, being the formation of mountains through huge underground forces), wildlife, human presence, religions, colonial battles, geographical puzzles (explorers spent decades seeking the headwaters of the major rivers through India/Pakistan/etc.), geopolitics (always ending with China effectively now subsuming Tibet) and mountaineering. By roaming over so many aspects of the young (yes, that surprised me also) but towering Himalayan ranges, while focusing on detailed historical and archival material, John Keay offers in Himalaya a magisterial, idiosyncratic “biography” that is a sheer delight.

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