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Tell Me A Story

January 17, 2011

Burn me at the stake, but I’ve had to set aside two books recently on subjects I find fascinating.  I suppose it’s a sign of my Unseriousness and Unworthiness, but I found both Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920s and The Rape of Europa: The Fate of Europe’s Treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War to be too hard to read.

There’s no doubt that a good work of history is a well-researched work of history, but without both a command of the Big Picture and a eye for the individual human details, there is a point at which a “work of history” becomes more of a reference book, especially if the author feels compelled to catalog every piece of their research in the body of the narrative, rather than in footnotes or appendices.  Both authors have wonderfully dry wit in places, but Ann Douglas’ Terrible Honesty is clearly written by an academic, and as much as I enjoyed the choice quotes from authors and artists of the day, I did get bogged down in the psychological analysis of the zeitgeist.  Lynn Nicholson’s Europa also has flashes of authorial wit, but it’s also an exhaustive compendium of every work the Nazis looted, and in its first 150 pages it reads like an inventory more than a story.

Over the years, I’ve learned the fine art of decoding the blurbs that fill the first few pages of your typical trade paperback edition.  When it comes to fiction, the phrase “luminous prose” gets a book the hook right away – if the prose is luminous, there is little doubt the reviewer is a member of the Cult of the Sentence, and recognizes the author as a fellow true believer.  Sentence cultists abhor plot and character as “common” and if you hear a writer say “it’s all about the sentences/language,” run for your life, because it means they can’t plot for shit, and consider plot the way an aristocrat thinks of “trade” – a way of obtaining filthy lucre to which a Gentleman of Parts would never stoop.

When it comes to nonfiction, I scan for the words “scholarly, erudition, exhaustive” – those are a sure sign that you’re holding a reference book, not a “history.”  I hate to say how much I’m starting to enjoy the WSJ Weekend edition, knowing that I’m putting a penny in Sarah Palin’s pocket every time I put a nickel in Rupert’s, but their book reviews are written with people like me in mind – smart, well-read people who read for knowledge, but also to relax and enjoy ourselves.  This weekend a review of books on Alexander the Great by Tom Holland helpfully steers the Constant Reader towards Philip Freeman’s biography, which is

quite as racy and pacey as any novel. Here, in vivid and exciting detail, are all the familiar highlights of Alexander’s career: the battles, the tempestuous relationships, the dazzling ambitions, the mysterious death in Babylon. Mr. Freeman’s ambition, he tells us in his introduction, was "to write a biography of Alexander that is first and foremost a story." It is one he splendidly fulfills.

Whereas Pierre Briant’s book

is certainly not easy reading. The material is often self-consciously dry and the tone throughout one of sonorous hauteur: The scholar quoted most approvingly and repeatedly by Mr. Briant is Pierre Briant.

Now that’s news I can use, and I promptly ordered the Freeman book.  It also made me want to order Holland’s own Persian Fire, now that I know how he values a good story.

To me, a great historian is one who sees the people in the story and keeps those people, and our natural human interest in them, at the front of her narrative.  I was dissuaded from reading Steven Runciman’s History of the Crusades because it was considered biased and outdated, and I went instead with the newer God’s War, which was a great disappointment.  Author Christopher Tyerman has no doubt done all his research, but the actual people in the narrative are only important to him in how they reflect the larger trends at work.  For instance, there was a quick sketch of one of the Baldwins, kings of Jerusalem, who was handsome, bisexual, daring, and wicked.  Tyerman introduces this fascinating character, then promptly veer off into a treatise on socioeconomic relations between Crusaders and natives before offhandedly reporting that the first interesting character in 500 pages was now dead.  Wait, what?  I managed to get a cheap Penguin paperback set of Runciman, which I’ve yet to read, but I’m looking forward to it.

Stacy Schiff’s Cleopatra, John Julius Norwich’s Byzantium, all of Barbara Tuchman and Simon Schama and the Oxford History of the United States are all written by authors who remember that they are writing narratives, not catalogs of facts.  If there’s a reason “fiction is dead” and “popular histories” are popular, it’s because we love a well-told story, all the more so if it’s all true.

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