Let me start off by admitting that I’m stealing the idea for today’s post from Librarian Who’s WWW Wednesday posts. It looks like a good tool to get me posting here at least weekly, and I can always find something to say about books. The premise is pretty simple. Every week I’ll answer three questions the answers to which you, Readers Mine, are undoubtedly awaiting with bated breath: What have I been reading? What am I reading now? and What will I read next?
Civil Wars – The past week or so has been spent in one of my American Civil War phases. Seriously, I go through times where I just can’t get enough on the subject, which are almost invariably followed by periods of total disinterest. It’s a fascinating period, but there’s just too much stuff out there, much of it written with only the smallest nod to historical fact. American history, and particularly the history of the American Civil War, is too often an ideological battleground (i.e. Texas School Board) rather than a well reasoned, well researched examination of the past. Thus, I was more than a little excited when British military historian John Keegan published his one-volume The American Civil War late last year. Keegan is something of a favorite of mine, and one of the most influential historians of the late 20th century. He is the author of several seminal works including The Face of Battle, The Mask of Command, and the absolutely indispensible A History of Warfare, among others.
Unfortunately, his best work may be in the past. Recent books have been uneven at best, and The American Civil War is no exception. It is repetitive, sometimes several chapters in a row containing paragraph-length restatements of earlier points that all too often seem to have been directly copy/pasted into place. I have no problem with an author reinforcing a point, but directly restating it again and again, often with little or no effort to make it fit into the structure of the current topic, gets old. I began to wonder if Keegan was writing chapters so far apart in time that he could not remember what he’d written previously, and if his editors hadn’t just rubber stamped the work since Keegan’s name pretty much guarantees sales. Far more disturbing were the apparent errors of fact that popped up throughout the work. I say apparent because Keegan’s prose often became so convoluted and poorly written that a single sentence could have multiple interpretations, one of which usually was simply historically inaccurate, and the others just really poorly expressed. Not good for a history. Overall, The American Civil War was disappointing, although even here there are undeniable moments of keen insight and true brilliance. The psychological aspects of the war revealed in how each side treated the other’s dead, for example, is Keegan at his best. Most of the book, however, is Keegan at his most slap-dash.
Rampant Colonialism – After all that brother-against-brother action, I thought I’d take a break by picking up the “white man’s burden” by revisiting an old favorite: H. Rider Haggard. I’d picked up an Allan Quatermain omnibus edition of the novels Marie, Child of Storm, and Finished (collected under the title of The Zulu Trilogy) a few months ago and put it on the pile, picking it up again Sunday night. What a blast. It’s probably politically incorrect as hell, and I’m well aware of the racism, sexism, ethnocentrism, and imperialism that are part and parcel of these works, but man, I love Rider Haggard and Allan Quatermain! Pure adventure stories and historical romances that often drift into the genre of fantasy, told in intelligent prose and narrated by the quintessential gentleman-adventurer. Fast paced, gripping stories of an Africa that never really existed, but which also reveal the author’s deep love for the country, and, for a man of his era, a deep respect for the African peoples and their traditions. I would even go so far as to argue that Haggard’s women are unusually strong and intelligent, though admittedly it is assumed that they should be so only within traditional gendered socio-sexual roles (how’s that for academic-speak?). The novels are a romp for me, but I think they have more merit than they are usually given, and are written with more intelligence, and require more of the same from their readers, than their modern equivalents.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about this collection, however, is the warning the publishers felt it necessary to tack onto the title page: “This book is a product of its time and place and does not reflect the same values as it would if it were written today. Parents might wish to discuss with their children how views on race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and interpersonal relationships have changed since this book was written before allowing them to read this classic work.” It’s the publishing equivalent of “the following does not necessarily represent the views of the producing company, its members, or affiliates” that we see on every DVD, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it on a book before. Not even on, say, Mein Kampf. Why on Haggard? I don’t think that’s quite right. Then again, the fact that it comes with a warning can only encourage kids to read it, so by all means….
Coming Soon – I’m not really sure. I’ve just received Jack Campbell’s final installment in his Lost Fleet military space opera hexology, Victorious, so that’s pretty high on the list, or I may continue with my current Civil War kick with Jean Edward Smith’s Grant, which, having dipped into the introduction, looks very promising. Then again there’s also plenty more on the pile, so much will depend on my mood when Allan Quatermain has once again disappeared into the veldt. Very comforting to have a pile waiting though!