This is a marvelous book. It is far and away the best single work available to English-speaking readers with an interest in Czech history and culture. It also more than merits the attention of anyone with an interest in Central Europe, the Western invention known as "Eastern Europe," European cultural history, or cultural history generally.
Sayer is quite convincing in making his major arguments: that the Czech lands of Bohemia and Moravia are rightly viewed as having stood for centuries at the center of European history; that Czech national identity, created virtually from scratch in the 19th century, exemplifies a complexly and authentically modern process of self-invention; and that the echoes, ironies, and reversals of Czech history hold valuable lessons for Westerners whose notions of "Eastern European" exoticism and backwardness are rivaled, in their ingenuousness, only by our belief in history as progress. He shows in vivid detail how history and historically derived notions of collective identity are refracted in the service of politics and power--and not only by totalitarian regimes. (In one of the book's most disturbingly persuasive sections, Sayer shows how Communism--far from being the wholly alien import that many Czechs would now prefer to see it as--took root in soil that had been well, if unwittingly, prepared by 150 years of often liberal Czech nationalist ideology.) Throughout "The Coasts of Bohemia," he provides a lavishly and (one comes to understand) lovingly detailed journey through the collective psyche of a fascinating nation--though Sayers' love for the Czechs and for Czech culture, we also come to suspect, is fiercely complicated and deeply ambivalent.
It should also be said that Sayers' book is just about a perfect model of what a scholarly book should be: massively detailed but carefully, even dramatically, shaped and organized; filled with concrete particulars but always letting the reader see their relation to the grand themes; stringen! tly reasoned but deeply felt; and extremely well written, illustrated, annotated, and indexed. In all, an extremely intelligent, learned, and sophisticated book that is also a great read.