BOOK REVIEW: The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian Ed. by Istvan Bori

The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of NationhoodThe Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of Nationhood by ISTVAN BORI

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book is a collection of 50 short essays on various topics (origins, history, arts, sciences, products, and entertainment) as they relate to Hungary and Hungarian-ness. There isn’t a great deal of depth to most of the essays, and so this isn’t the book for someone who is well-acquainted with Hungary and Hungarians and wants a deep level understanding. However, it would be a very useful and easily digested resource for travelers visiting Hungary who want insight into this smallish nation with its very long history. For those familiar with Hungary, this nation has a national character that is quite unique and which is characterized by intelligence, solitariness, and a certain variety of gloominess.

Hungary has had a much larger impact on the world than either its size would suggest, or than most of the world recognizes. Famously, the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb, wouldn’t have achieved success in such a rapid timeframe—if at all–if it weren’t for a slate of Hungarian-educated scientists including Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Jon Von Neumann. Few of his peers would have disputed the statement that Von Neumann was the smartest person on the planet during his day. Challenging explosives calculations that made the atomic bomb possible are just part of a legacy that also included being the father of game theory–an approach to strategic interactions that is in widespread use in Economics and the social sciences today.

There are some areas in which Hungary has certain niche. For example, while Hungary might not be thought of as an athletics powerhouse, generally speaking, the Hungarians dominate in the sport of water polo and are frequently strong contenders in some swimming events.

This book’s chapters are roughly organized, but not formally grouped, into alike topics. For example, foods, beverages, spices, and desserts are all one after the other. Various history topics are presented together, and the same is true of the arts. Some of the chapters are on much more concrete topics than others. For example, there are chapters on “Fate” and “Soul” up front that are more conceptual than the average chapters. As I indicated, this is a collection of essays by various authors, and that means that there’s not a solitary tone and approach throughout the book. However, there was a single chief editor, and so the chapters aren’t distractingly disparate either.

I believe the book was unfortunately named. “The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian” makes it sound as if this would be a perfect gift for the children of emigrants, i.e. people who’ve visited the country and spent time around Hungarians, but who want to learn more about their native culture. It probably doesn’t give enough depth and new information for such people. For example, the chapters on cuisine talk about pogácsa and gulyas (i.e. goulash), and don’t delve into the exotic, but rather stick with the everyday cuisine with which any visitor to Hungary will already be familiar. On the other hand, tourists and travelers for whom this book might be ideal could be led astray, thinking the book is offering them more depth than they want, need, or can reasonably digest. That being said, there are chapters on niche subjects such as “contemporary writers” or “folk dancing” from which even a veteran visitor to Hungary might pick up something new.

I’d recommend this book–particularly for those who haven’t yet spent a great deal of time in Hungary or who work or interact with Hungarians and want more insight into their nature. Each essay is short and easily digested.

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