Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Grumpy complaining about a book I won't finish

Well here's something unusual for me, so I'm going to stay in my Professional Reader role for another day. I picked up a book at the library, just yesterday, that seems like a dud.  I'm not going to finish it.

The book is historian Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History (2008).  MacMillan argues that history is important, and that sometimes history is used for bad purposes.  Historians should write good history, not bad history.  Politicians, and the rest of us, should try to draw the correct lessons from history, not the wrong lessons.

It sounds like I'm just mocking the book, but I'm just imitating its style:

History responds to a variety of needs, from greater understanding of ourselves and our world to answers about what to do. (6)

History has shaped humans' values, their fears, their aspirations, their loves, and their hatreds. (8)

The last two decades have been troubled and bewildering ones, and, not surprisingly, many people have turned to history to try to understand what is going on. (11)

I do want to mock that last line, inserting a parenthetical comment after "troubled and bewildering ones" - unlike any other decades, right, like the tranquil and perfectly comprehensible decades of, um, you know, let's see?   But that's not my point, which is that these statements, although more or less true, are banal, and the language, simplistic.  It's historiography for seventh graders.

I've only read the preface and one chapter.  That's just not fair.  Hang on while I read some more.  This is a Modern Library Chronicles book, so the chapters are short and the pages tiny.  I won't be long.

All right, Chapter 2 was not much better.  The subject is national apologies for historical misdeeds - should the United States apologixe for slavery, or should Canada apologize interning Ukrainians during World War I?  MacMillan lays out the pros and cons clearly, which is good, and simply, which is not, since I pretty much knew the issues already.  Not the book for me.  Maybe one more chapter.  Sorry, hang on.

Now that was a mistake.  MacMillan uses Chapter 3 to take swings at the history profession.  What is this supposed to be, I ask:

While it is instructive, informative, and indeed fun to study such subjects as the carnivals in the French Revolution, the image of the Virgin Mary in the Middle Ages, the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche..., or the hamburger in American life, we ought not to forget the aspect of history that the great nineteenth-century German historian Leopold von Ranke summed up as "what really happened." (38)

How condescending - "indeed fun."  Finish up your cute little pretend history and get back to real history.  Who is "forgetting"?  How are carnivals in the French Revolution not part of what really happened?  The next paragraph backs off a bit, mentioning the rise of social and gender history, but this is what she really means:

historians must not abandon political history entirely for sociology or cultural studies.  Like it or not, politics matters to our societies and to our lives. (37)

MacMillan is correct.  Fortunately, there is not the slightest danger of historians, who study a wide variety of subjects, "abandoning" political history.  MacMillan is arguing about the ratio or the hierarchy or something.  I'm missing some subtext.

I'd better stop.  Three chapters is almost a third of the book, which if not fair, is close to fair.  Readers less familiar with these sorts of issues - undergraduate hitory majors, perhaps? - will likely get a lot more out of it than I have.

Now look at this.  I have before me a review of the book by Max Hastings from the March 11, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books.  The book's essays, says Hastings, "break no significant new ground" and "suffer somewhat in coherence and continuity by their obvious derivation from lectures delivered to a student audience."  I see, I see.  Fair enough.  I wish I'd known that.


  1. I think I would enjoy an essay about the role of the doughnut in the Canadian psyche, myself.

    Good review. I think three chapters is fair.

  2. Personally, I would prefer an essay about the role of the Timbit in the Canadian psyche.

    As to "fair enough," I actually think that can be a tough question. It's one thing to be directed at an audience with needs different from your own, but that doesn't mean you are up for it being "wrong" or simplified to a degree that is tantamount to "wrongness" on some level. Although perhaps here it is less about wrongness and more about uninterestingness.

  3. This sounds like a really stupid book-not something I would ever set out to read any way-a lot of the cause of works and ideas like this being trendy among teachers lies in the pandering now done in educational institutions to the greatly declining cultural levels of the students and in turn the teachers and political managers of schools-from elementary on up

  4. I totally understand your issues with the prose here. I've had similar problems with novels, when the writing is amateurish and simplistic, but it's hard to give an example because the author is technically proficient. But those few sentences you included were indeed cringe-worthy, especially coming from someone who seems to think she's operating from a loftier intellectual sphere. I love history but I think I'll skip this one.

  5. A real reviewer would have mentioned something I omitted, that MacMillan is also the author of Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World (2001), a well-regarded history of the Paris Peace Conference, an example of the political history she advocates. It has won many awards. Making the puzzle of this book all the greater.

    Because, as nicole says, exactly what audience needs to be told that "politics matters to our societies and to our lives"? Who does not know that? Or, rather, who does not know that who will ever possibly read this book?

    As for those doughnuts - the ellipses in that quotation contain a parenthetical comment that Canadians have the highest per capita doughnut consumption in the world. Lucky Canadians. Happy Canadians. Blessed Canadians.

  6. You dealt with this in the very next sentence, but really: a historian who claims that "the last two decades have been troubled and bewildering ones," implying that this is anything but the human status quo, really needs to find a new line of work.

  7. I think you gave teh book a very fair attempt and a fair assessment. If she's written such a well-respected book I wonder why she published this subpar one? Maybe she was hoping for something easy and popular?

  8. Just think of the role of the doughnut on the Canadian physique let alone the psyche. And the American hamburger has shaped quite a bit of America as well!

  9. All of this talk about doughnuts is having a bad effect on my psyche. 'Cause I have no doughnuts.

    Harsh, Michael, harsh, although I know what you mean. The best defense of that line is laziness.

    Stefanie - I just leafed through Paris 1919. It seems fine, perfectly well-written. It's a big narrative history, so there's little room for the sorts of banalities I found so puzzling in the new book.

  10. Sometimes books just don't live up to expectations! I definitely enjoyed your critique though. :D

  11. Ah, Eva, that "expectations" language makes me nervous. It implies that if I had properly calibrated my expectations, everything would be fine. And I insist that once I am reading, my expectations don't matter. I will adjust to the book at hand.

    I know many people use this expectation language when talking about books, but I am never sure what they mean by it.

    This book did not meet my standards.