Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities was an unlikely academic bestseller that profoundly influenced a number of disciplines—from political science to comparative literature. When the book was published in 1983, Anderson, who died last year aged 79, was primarily an anthropologist working on south-east Asia.
As he relates in this engaging and winningly modest memoir, Imagined Communities was addressed primarily to the Marxist thinkers orbiting his brother Perry Anderson of New Left Review. It argued that nationalism, despite its claims to antiquity, was a product of 19th-century print culture. Rich in anecdote and blessed with a memorable title, it was a hit with undergraduates and general readers.
Anderson was by nature a comparative thinker. Born in China of Irish descent, he studied in England and worked at American universities. The country he loved best was Indonesia, where he did fieldwork in the early 1960s. He learned the language in only four months and made his own lasting contribution to it. Uncomfortable with being addressed as Tuan (master) because of his white skin, he asked his friends to use the term bulé, the colour of albino animals. It is now commonly used across the country. Later banned from Indonesia for political reasons, Anderson studied Thailand and the Philippines, especially relishing the many cultural and linguistic challenges.
Anderson shies away from revealing much about his adult personal life,
but he has some canny and pertinent observations on modern academia: the prevalence of jargon and the lack of language skills. Poignantly, he tells us how lucky he feels about his achievements. We should feel the same.