You Could Look It Up by Jack Lynch

9780802777942My wife reads very fancy books about books and manuscripts and language. I read a lot, and do appreciate the idea of these, but this is more my level.  From the Law of Hammarabi to Wikipedia, this looks at reference books – academic text books, dictionaries, encyclopedias, law codes, fun books of miscellany. The headline focus of each chapter is two similarly themed books. There will be some stats – size, weight, number of words – but most of the book is devoted to anecdotes that show how and why these volumes were put together and what their impact was. Between the main chapters there are shorter chapters than go off on a tangent: famous mistakes, changes in format, lists of unusual reference books.

51nhvcdvhhl-_sy368_bo1204203200_My favourite bit of the book was on a less than helpful Polish encyclopedia with the entry “Horse: everyone can see what it is”. On a similar note John Kersey’s New English Dictionary (fork: a well-known instrument; cat: a well-known creature; dog: a beast) impressed. There are many such stories throughout the book. But through the entertainment it becomes clear that writing a reference book is a long, slow, difficult process – even today with larger and larger teams of experts. There is no single right way to do it (though some of the compilers may disagree).

People are moving away from the idea of owning hard copies, but they rarely did anyway – often the full prestigious set was just a opener for more abridged selections. There have been worries in the past about reference books changing behaviour, making us lazier. That debate seems as relevant as ever in a digital world.  Despite the possibility to sink into a chain of wikipedia links in a binge read, maybe online doesn’t suit browsing (and finding things we never knew we wanted to know) quite as nicely as a hard copy.  Whatever the future holds, this is a light and readable take on the history so far.

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Venice: Pure City by Peter Ackroyd

2301649Humblebragging: I started reading this book on holiday in Venice, but only managed to finish it at home – so I did a lot of after the fact realization about the titbits of information in this book.  In a way, that’s fine – it’s a very good book for picking up things about Venice but not in a systematic way.  It’s far from a guide book.  Peter Ackroyd describes the history and culture of the city in thematic chapter that never quite fit within chronology or location.  But that is a good encouragement for actually seeing the city: Ackroyd uses his themes to suggest concepts one should look out for – stylised depictions of the sea, contrasts between public display and private parsimony, references in names and art.  It encourages you to just get lost and see what you see, rather than looking to tick off the boxes.

I understand that this was based on a TV show and I think that explains some of the uneven-ness; the mix of too much detail and not enough; the structure that jumps around.  It’s not quite guidebook, not quite history, not quite travelogue (in fact for something based on a TV show, I might have expected more personal input from Ackroyd).  It is rather good though at portraying that sense of magic that Venice has.  It’s not without an ethical side, the author does describe the issues that tourism has had on the city, and that’s in a pre-Air B&B world.

HHhH and Memoirs of Hadrian

220px-hhhh_bookcoverRecently I read two quite different works of historical fiction by French authors, both obsessed in their own way with a kind of authenticity.  In the post-modern HHhH (from 2010) the author Laurent Binet inserts himself and his writing process into a story about the assassination of Reinhardt Heydrich.  Uncomfortable about straying from historical fact or even inventing dialogue with real characters, Binet will intersperse the narrative with his thoughts on his own writing and his experiences researching the book.  I’m not sure whether this quirk is inventive or not; but it is wasn’t quite as well done as this the book would be unreadable.  The reticence against invention leads to the characters that a flat and, although the story still has its drama, it feels like Binet could have made more of it.  His interventions do add to the build up, but it’s a gimmick that I enjoyed but wouldn’t particularly care to see again.  In all, I enjoyed the book as a one off; and I’m tempted to break through my usual aversion to WW2 histories and find a real book on the assassination.

51fbcpndyjl-_sx323_bo1204203200_In 1951’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Margeurite Yourcenar tries to strip her own personality and touch away from the writing; through detailed research and critical editing (a number of earlier attempts were scrapped entirely) she produces what reads like a real set of memoirs.  This sometimes leaves the book more admirable than enjoyable but at it’s best it can be moving, especially as Hadrian deals with the death of his favourite Antinous.  His internal struggles show a character with real depth, as a man who fundamentally believes that peace is the best way forward but throws himself wholeheartedly into his military role.  Compared to another recent read, Julian by Gore Vidal, the emperor feels genuine and subtle; the themes seem to occur naturally from the story.  It’s a very gentle work, and you can feel the time and effort that have went into it.

As far as authenticity goes, Yourcenar definitely has the better balance of research and narrative; I could probably stand for a little less realism, but I think it’s a good model for fictionalised biography.  Binet self-reflects on his failure to do justice to the narrative, and in a way that deprecation makes the book work, gives it a source of humour on a grim topic.  I don’t think even close to a model of how to write, but it is however a very enjoyable book.

The Fall of Rome by Peter Heather

51wyaq06g3l-_sx320_bo1204203200_This was one of the first proper history books I bought, back in 2007.  Fresh from Robert Harris‘ Cicero first novel and Tom Holland’s Rubicon, I overreached.  It’s a fascinating, interesting, well written book, but it is a lot more academic than either of those.  I enjoyed it, but being unfamiliar with the details of the debate on the end of Rome I didn’t really get the most out of Heather’s arguments.  More recently, I read his The Restoration of Rome and found it to be a much lighter book than my memories of this.  Inspired by this and my improved understanding of Rome in the intervening decade, I decided to return to The Fall of Rome.

Peter Heather has the same stylish way with words that he showed in the more recent book ( one quote that stood out: “Clovis, in particular, seems to have enjoyed the merry crack of axe on skull”) but the popular analogies don’t come quite as frequent or quite as broad.  This is a much more serious book, which tries to set out a middle ground between the ideas that Rome either fell entirely because of internal decline, or that it collapsed solely due to the external force of the invading barbarians.  As he states near the start, no one seriously takes either opinion so a middle opinion was always inevitable; but he does have some points to make about the exact role that the Huns played in the process.

In Heather’s opinion the western movement of the Huns sparked the movements of other peoples, and it was these that caused the real damage to the empire.  There had been similarly fierce nomads before – the Sarmatians in the first century BC – but this did not have the knock on effect because the Germanic tribes that bordered Rome were too small and localized to have the same impact.  In the face of Roman power large confederations of tribes formed and united into even bigger ones.  Once these were forced to move, real trouble was unleashed.

The book covers both this argument and the surrounding history with some skill.  It’s not overly populist, but Heather uses anecdote and colour where appropriate.  On the other hand, he compares the archaeological record against established ideas and offers conservative and plausible figures on numbers.  I’m glad I returned to the book, and even after my intervening decade of reading about Rome felt that I  was reading a unique and valuable account of the topic.

The Road Not Taken by Frank McLynn

How Britain Narrowly Missed A Revolution

In the introduction to this book, McLynn refers to two other contemporary books on the same topic:  David Horspool’s The English Rebel and Edward Vallance’s A Radical History of Britain.  In these, Vallance took an optimistic stance, tracking a chain of progressive ideas through history and sees the rebellions and protests of British history as part of that; Horspool sees the rebellions as failures and often rooted in tradition.  McLynn tries to walk somewhere between these – he stresses that he isn’t a Marxist, but does find himself rooting for the underdog.

The book focuses on a few big movements: the Peasants Revolt in 1381 (and to a lesser extent Jack Cade’s revolt), the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536, the influence of the Levellers on Oliver Cromwell, the Jacobite rebellions (particularly 1745), the Chartists, and the General Strike of 1926.  The underlying question is why did these protests never turn into a true revolution?  The Glorious Revolutions is dismissed as a mere regime change, and Cormwell’s Protectorate as not radical enough.

One answer is the flexibility and, to be blunt, the dishonesty of the ruling class.  The Machiavellian talents of Henry VIII are shown off in the 1530’s, as he stalls and charms his way out a tricky military situation then stamps down on the rebels (McLynn portrays Henry as a brutal tyrant in the mould of the worst 20th century dictators – he’s not a fan).

The double dealing and outright lies of the General Strike are also covered in detail.  McLynn shows disdain for the gradualists of the Labour party like Ramsay McDonald and right wingers in the unions like J.H Thomas, who would let down and even work against the strikers.  The unreasonably hardline Conservative government of Baldwin, Churchill, F.E Smith and Joynson-Hicks also comes in for a bashing.  The characters are well drawn out.

Frank McLynn’s area of expertise (despite his long and varied list of biographies) is the Jacobites, and that part of the book probably feels the least obvious.  How revolutionary would Charles Stuart have been?  There were Jacobite followers of various kind and we are introduced to some (including some Tories) who sympathised with the working classes.

It could have been revolutionary in that sense, but it never really feels like a true overthrow of the system – this is true throughout the book.  What McLynn does or does not include lacks consistency, or (more generously) sometimes needs a little bit of imagination to see “what if?”.  In what he does cover, McLynn does trace a fascinating and personal history of near-revolutionary change in British history and attempts to explain what prevented it from sparking.  It’s more interesting than authoritative, but the portrayal of the personalities of the general strike alone make the book worth reading.

The City In Late Antiquity

I picked up this collection from my local library.  It’s a series of short essays, edited by John Rich, from archaeologists and historians on cities in late antiquity (as the name would suggest).  As one would expect, this essentially tracks changes in cities as the Roman empire declined.  This is a mixed bag of behaviours depending on region and time period – the essays are thus divided by regions.

Generalizing is difficult, but we read about the continued prosperity of cities in Africa; the decline of the Curiales (a sort of oligarchic council) than ran the settlements, replaced by the church in Gaul and the later Byzantine governors in the Danube; the discontinuity or continuity of towns in Britain*; the use of classical art styles by the Lombards in Northern Italy.

There’s a lot of detail in here, but it still feels like its only scratching the surface.  It’s not the most up to date volume (from 1992) or the most readable (more down to the number of authors across the chapters rather than a lack of quality) but it does show the variety of interesting threads that come out of this period of history.

*Something that came up in books by Francis Pryor and Neil Faulkner.

 

Invisible Romans by Robert Knapp

17248762This book, from 2011, tries to give a sense of what life was like for non-elite Romans: the poor, slaves, freedmen (outside the high profile imperial ones), soldiers, prostitutes, gladiators, bandits, and just ordinary men and women.  The sources here aren’t as dramatic as those for the trials and tribulations of the imperial family or high ranking senators.  There is a lot of reading between the lines in literature (Apuleius’ The Golden Ass and Petronius’ Satyricon for instance), more esoteric works (Artemidorus’s dream interpretations) or funerary inscriptions.

This meant that it ended up covering similar ground with other books I have read recently – Jerry Toner’s How To Manage Your Slaves (which I was sure I had posted on – that may have to be written), Mary Beard’s Laughter in Ancient Rome, Jerry Toner’s Popular Culture in Ancient Rome, and Robin Lane Fox’s Pagans and Christians.  With this, the sections on “ordinary men” and slaves in particular rehashed a things I had already read.  The other books mentioned above have greater depth to them, and weaved the ideas and quotations into greater themes.  In comparison this book had a wider range, but skipped through each topic rather quickly.

Some of the chapters on society’s fringe groups were more interesting for me – much of the material on soldier, prostitutes and gladiators was new to me.  Again, it was rather dry compared to some other authors – the material is set out there and the reader is often left to come to their own impressions and conclusions.  This does have its advantages, being allowed to actually read through selected portions of the sources is rather nice.  There are interesting discussions on how to judge material based on its intended audience, especially on topics like sexuality or societal roles.

As with many of the other books mentioned, there are generalisations here – material is taken from across the span of the empire – in both time and space.  Often from 1st and 2nd century Rome or Greece, but also from Egypt or Palestine (the bible does pop up as an occasional source).  This is understandable.

Overall, it’s a very well put together work.  It’s probably more informative than enjoyable, but it is definitely an accessible and extensive introduction to an area that is only starting to come under the spotlight.

Q by Luther Blissett

51x8b2znkvl-_sx324_bo1204203200_I first heard of this book around fifteen years ago on Channel 4’s Football Italia.  It had nothing to do with the former Watford and A.C Milan striker, but in the UK that connection did get it in the media as a bizarre “and finally” style story.  This Luther Blissett is (or was) a collective of Italian anarchist writers who used the name as a anonymous group nom de plume for their works (“Anyone can be Luther Blissett simply by adopting the name Luther Blissett”).

The premise of the book, however, did interest me.  The Reformation.  Revolting Peasants.  Prophetic Anabaptist preachers.  Scheming bankers.  The intrigue of the medieval catholic church.  Much of this is not fiction – the book follows a character through the German Peasants’ War, the Munster Rebellion, and fringe groups of the reformation in Antwerp and Venice.  He changes his name several times and, perhaps, becomes harder and more cynical.

blisset

These changes do feel natural.  Although the chapters are short and the book skips quickly through its thirty year time span, the character and his path are shown, not told.  Life as a protestant radical is given the feeling of a left wing political movement, an anarchist protest, or occasionally a football crowd.  The atmosphere of the book throughout the Munster rebellion is fantastic with hope for a brighter future drifting into despair and terror as Jan Matthys finally arrives.

At times the blending of anti-capitalism and religion is a little heavy handed.  I felt that Imprimatur by Monaldi & Sorti (another Italian novel from the same time) featured the murky dealings of the church’s agents with more subtlety.  I wouldn’t hold that against it, it feels very suited to the radical hero of the book.  The final showdown with Q, a papal spy and the main antagonist, feels like a little bit of an anti-climax; but I suspect that was only because the journey to that point was so enjoyable.

The authors behind Luther Blissett have since changed their name to Wu Ming, and I look forward to reading more of their work!

England, Arise by Juliet Barker

I’m never sure about getting books by Juliet Barker.  Bernard Cornwell recommended her book on Agincourt quite highly, so I obviously began by buying the sequel, Conquest, about the English ruled land in France in the decades after the battle.  This wasn’t a glamorous book – England falls, France rises and the kingdom stutters to an ignominious defeat.  Barker showed a great head for numbers – money and men were thrown at the kingdom, but never as much as was needed.

Agincourt was a more heroic book, but again Barker carefully separated the myth and the fact, and fleshed out the war with logistics and figures.  The attention to detail was interesting to read, but at times hard to push through – although she kept both books fairly concise, they do not feel like a light read.

England, Arise (from 2014), her take on the 1381 “Peasants’ Revolt”, fills a similar role.  The myth is one of John Ball, Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and a proto-protestant, proto-communist revolt by the oppressed masses.  As ever, it is more complicated than that.

The background to the trouble was one of financial trouble for the kingdom, as it struggled to pay for faltering wars in France – Barker has tread similar ground before, but here she gets to show the effect on the people.  In the aftermath of the plague, wages should have increased (and informally did) but this was opposed by restrictive laws and taxes.  Corruption was rife.  A series of taxes were imposed in an attempt to raise money to continue the wars abroad, but bad organisation and a young king led to increasing resentment against the aristocrats and bureaucrats.

This eventually spilled over into what Barker concludes was a co-ordinated and organised uprising by the men of Kent and Essex, beginning in Brentwood (now better known for TOWIE).  There was not a wholesale slaughter, the targets were focussed – officials or landowners seen as greedy or corrupt.  In many cases the rebels simply went after the documentation, in an attempt to revoke land grabs or unfair dealings.  There was looting of course, but this was no out of control mob.

The young king Richard II met the rebellion and promptly agreed to all their demands, giving them encouragement to continue doing what they believed was the king’s work.  He changed his mind some time later, while safely out of harms way.  Barker concludes though that his sympathies may have lay closer to the rebels than often portrayed.  The revocation came late and only under the direction of his council – this forced retreat may have helped form his later hostility to much of the aristocracy.

The other big names of 1381 play only small roles here.  Little is known about Tyler, and less about Jack Straw.  John Ball is present, but the best known parts are made up, and the role of religion in the uprising may be overstated by sources later trying to discredit the rebels and religious factions like the Lollards – John Wycliffe, the influential founder of this movement, disapproved of the revolt and was closely linked to many of its targets.

Like her other books, this is an authoritative and detailed account – but sometimes a bit too detailed, and it is easy to get lost in anecdotes or sidetracks about medieval customs and culture.  The lack of myth and legend is justified throughout, but does feel a little disappointing – it never really sparks to life.  It does, however, probably leave me better prepared to go and read some trashy Hollywood version with all the great speeches and quotes reinserted!

Iron Kingdom by Christopher Clark

I picked this up from my local library recently for a holiday to Berlin.  As it turns out, there’s maybe not a whole lot of relevancy for such a city break – Berlin has been so rebuilt from the time of old Prussia in both physical form and outlook; and, in any case, the history of Prussia was always dominated by the fringes.  The eastern Dukedom that provided the name and the old military Junker families is now back in Polish hands, and the rest of German has found an easier, less Prussian, form of German unification.  It was however a fascinating book.

With the reputation that Prussian has, I was expecting fairly blunt military history but Clark delicately covers the social, religious and economic aspects of history too.  We don’t just get the monarchs (inevitably called either William or Frederick, sometimes both) and the aristocrats, but also the working people – both native Prussians and minorities, often Polish or Jewish.  Packing all this in, the book is a big one.  It is not, however, heavy going – Clark writes accessibly, even on the more difficult topics.

As Prussia forms and leads a unified Germany, the book could become more of a standard history of the World Wars.  Thankfully, Clark finds his own angle on this.  Alongside the main narrative of the rise of the Nazi Party, for instance, we see the Prussian state dominated by the Social Democrats.  Throughout the book, there were a lit of similar bits, previously unknown to me, that came together to help explain the path that Prussia took through history.  It may not have quite been the perfect holiday book, but I really enjoyed this.