Subtitled "Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism", Imagined Communities, though not uncontested in its interpretation of the subject, has become something of a classic since it was first published in 1983. In this, the third edition, Anderson has added a chapter which looks at the history of the book itself as it has spread around the globe in myriad editions and ever more translations. This includes some wry observations on the implicit nationalist context in which some editions have appeared: there has, he notes humorously, even been a "royalist" translation. The book has been so well-received, he believes, not only because it takes a global view and gives more attention to smaller countries but because, having some sympathy for his subject, he wrote it in a way more likely to unsettle than to antagonize – after all, the word "community" has positive connotations, and "imagined" does not mean "imaginary".

What kind of a phenomenon is nationalism? Anderson's arresting image is that of the tomb of the unknown soldier: the tomb of the unknown Liberal or the unknown Marxist is, as he says, inconceivable. Nationality is felt as something one is born into. Nationalism, like religion, is associated in our minds with notions of death, meaning, and continuity. Clearly it also manifests only in the particular: there must always be other nations outside the nation. It is therefore not be considered in the same way as a general political ideology – an anthropological perspective is more appropriate.

Hence, when it comes to considering the origins of nationalism, the introduction of an idea from the work of anthropologist Victor Turner: that of a journey as a meaning-creating experience, as in a pilgrimage. Why, Anderson asks, did the borders of Spanish South American countries end up so closely mirroring the administrative units created by the Spanish colonizers? More precisely, what explains the attachment felt in the mind of each country's citizens? It is in part, he argues, the unconscious interpretation of journeys made by the functionaries which create a sense of connectedness: Why am I travelling to (the capital) just like (B) from (area X)? Why am I administering (area Y) even though I was born in (area Z)? It must be because I am (N) – we together are (N). To a layman, this is appealing: the motif of the journey continually recurs in storytelling and there is good reason to believe it is psychically significant. However it is also unconvincing: there is the necessity for some pre-existing label N, the limited application to functionaries, the comparative neglect of simpler explanations (for example, based on power structures and fellowship among functionaries); in short, he seems to be trying too hard for too uncertain a return.

In a similar vein, he writes about the changing consciousness of time, from something which sequenced the events of individual experience (and, beyond that, was rather more mysterious) to our modern day more historical, shared, synchronized conception of time. Again, one feels there is indeed something relevant here – that scepticism might be attributable to an inability to place oneself in the now alien mind of the past. Yet the explanatory power provided by the recourse to a dramatic change in perceptions of time seems unnecessary. A good and more convincingly relevant example that Anderson gives is the novel: before it, a story involving previously separated actors might be narrated in spoken flashback from the point those actors came together; in a novel the same events would be related with the use of the word "meanwhile" from an omniscient perspective – that is, a perspective in which a wider society (community) becomes visible advancing through time. Yet, contrary to the author's focus, the new perspective seems if anything to be spatial, the result of adopting a bird's eye view.

It is interesting to think that such a view – as offered by a modern map – could ever have been new and strange. In material added in the second edition, Anderson relates how earlier Siamese maps used oblique, varying perspectives with no uniform scale. On the ground, there were "boundary" rocks at mountain passes and the like – but no notion of their marking points on an invisible line. Dominion was not thought of as something uniform across a territory but as emanating outwards from population centres. Into this marched the European map: the map as a tool of empire and in which every area must be inked in one colour or another. The coloured shapes duly became logos and these logos were instrumental in fostering the nationalism of the subject populations. The effect of map ink in the popular imagination could be comical or tragic: a straight line drawn quite arbitrarily through New Guinea meant that Indonesians saw one half of the island as indelibly theirs, whatever its inhabitants might think.

Anderson's account of language and its complex relationship with nationalism is also compelling. In Europe before the printing press, languages changed rapidly. When printers exhausted the small market for books in Latin, they turned to the vernaculars, thus crystallizing them into a more permanent, homogenous form while also affording new possibilities for possibly subversive communication (contrast Europe's "print-capitalism" with China, where print came earlier but was not an object of commercial enterprise). In time, as the vernaculars were elevated and dignified, Latin was to lose its sacred aspect. Eventually the vernaculars came to be seen by their speakers as their property, something connecting them to a glorious past which had until then been forgotten. The use of any vernacular as a language of state then necessarily aligned the dynastic rulers of polyglot empires with only a part of their subject populations.

However, Anderson's thesis is that nationalism originated not in Europe but in the creole populations of the Americas, where language was not a factor. The results of the rebellions there, which had a forward-looking aspect, provided a visible model for conscious European nationalisms, which looked to the ancient past for validity. Official nationalism came later as the threatened imperial regimes attempted to (in Anderson's felicitous phrase) stretch the skin of the nation over the body of the empire. Added to all this are the author's reflections on patriotism and racism, the biographies of nations, the relationship between nationalism, religion and the Enlightenment, and other topics.

Imagined Communities is replete with ideas and insights which remain in the mind to be pondered long after the book has been read. If the author is not uniformly convincing he is certainly never dull. Anderson repeatedly confronts us with antique styles of thought, sometimes so strange that they beggar the ability of the modern imagination to recapture them, even tangentially. In doing so, he is not showing us quaint exhibits so much as holding a mirror to our own ways of seeing the world – heightening our awareness of the degree to which these may be chosen rather than necessary or even natural and thus opening the door to new, broader perceptions.

Book review © 2008 Michael Breen