"…just one fucking thing after another."

And, y’know, I have yet to come up with a handier, one-phrase description of history than Rudge’s from the last act of The History Boys. I’m sure there are professional historians out there for whom it sounds like anathema but, well, I only have my master’s degree in history, so I barely count as professional!

Anyway, I thought for this Monday since my photos have been so boring lately — it’s difficult taking good wintertime photos when you A) have no tripod and B) can’t really take off your gloves to take a picture because it’s so damn cold. Possibly this is how I know I’m not a National Geographic-style photographer? If it’s a choice between a photo and my fingers, I choose my fingers. Anyway, the point of this post is I thought I might comment on the highlights of my recent history reading since I’ve been on a serious non-fiction kick.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History, John M. Barry. It’s all in the title, to be quite honest with you: the post-World War I influenza pandemic. Although Barry uses the word ‘pandemic,’ which to me has global or “broader than one country” connotations, the book focusses quite tightly on the US. In fact, if you read this and come away with the idea that the US suffered more than almost anywhere else not only in the influenza pandemic but also World War I, that would be understandable. Widening the focus might have been a good idea from a historical point of view, but might have ruined the point from a medical point of view — indeed, even from a history of medicine point of view –, since what Barry is interested in is the origin of the disease (somewhere in the midwest, apparently) and the scientific “struggle against the virus.” It practically comes with its own soundtrack. Scientists are noble, disinterested, honest beings struggling valiantly to save a doomed humanity. Ok, I’m oversimplifying a little and I’m not doing Barry any favors but my suggestion would either be to go through with a highlighter and pencil and deconstruct his narrative or read it so quickly you don’t have to think too much.

I wouldn’t recommend it as serious academic reading, but it’s on the same level as, say, a Simon Schama talking-head documentary about the history of Britain. You will almost undoubtedly learn something, but it may not be quite the thing the author intended that you learn. One thing I will say — Barry’s explanations of the medicine and science accompanying the 1918 influenza pandemic are fantastic. He has a solid knack for making what are, for me anyway, nearly incomprehensibly complex scientific concepts seem, well, quite simple or at least visualizable.

The Perfect Summer, Juliet Nicolson. Nicolson is Vita Sackville-West’s granddaughter, so when she writes this kind of history, it can sometimes be less a history, and more a recounting of family gossip. This doesn’t make her light, fluffy history of the summer of 1911 in Britain any less readable. The word that comes immediately to mind is “charming.” If you read this and E.F. Benson’s Dodo novels back to back, you’d have an…interesting, if totally one-sided, vision of Britain before the war. Nicolson makes a laudable attempt to have her story cross class lines, talking about working-class protests, the rise of the labor movement, and activist women in factories.

Nicolson is very good at pulling out personal narratives and details to give her story dimension and life and she claims several personalities as central to her story, including socialite Lady Diana Manners and poet Rupert Brooke. Also tangential to the narrative she constructs are figures including Siegfried Sassoon, Leonard Woolf, Virginia Stephen, and Queen Mary. The anecdotes she chooses are always amusing and the whole book is a light, enjoyable read.

Dreyfus: Politics, Emotion, and the Scandal of the Century, Ruth Harris. Less fluffy; not even remotely charming; very, very interesting. So the Dreyfus Affair, yes? 1890s France; there’s a spy in the French army; a Jewish officer is accused and sentenced: is he innocent or not? Well, the verdict is in, folks, and the dude was about as innocent as you can reasonably get. In fact, even after the French government made him spend lots and lots and lots of time on Devil’s Island — not a nice place — he wanted to be reinstated in the army after his innocence was proved. One of the heartbreaks of his post-Affair life, according to Harris, was that he wasn’t allowed the retroactive promotions he would have received had he remained in the service normally.

Harris takes this fairly basic story — often reported in terms not much more complex than I have used — and breaks it down. And then breaks that down. And then breaks that down again. The Affair divided its partisans into two fairly basic groups: Dreyfusards (innocent) and anti-Dreyfusards (guilty). Given that the Affair itself was highly charged with anti-Semitic feeling and that anti-Dreyfusard propaganda often took on a tinge that Nazi propagandists might have envied, these two “sides” often look like White Hats and Black Hats in historical hindsight. Harris’ aim here is to show where that isn’t quite true; a more honest retrospective might show a whole bunch of Grey Hats, with a lot of shades of grey. Leading Dreyfusards might have hated Jews personally, but thought the damage to France’s reputation as the leading light of fraternal democracy being done by Dreyfus’ imprisonment was too much to take. Anti-Dreyfusards, on the other hand, might have had no particularly strong anti-Jewish feeling, but have wanted desperately to support the army once the verdict against Dreyfus was given.

Harris’ analysis can get weighty at times and I’m not saying this isn’t a dry read. You might want a pen and paper handy to keep note of names and dates because, brother, does she go through it by the detail. You will know more than you ever wanted to know about who forged what and when. But she also makes a fascinating argument about the emergence of French nationalism, nationalism in general, and the creation of an ideology and how that may, or may not, play into state- and/or nation-building. She also picks at the perception of the Affair as an anti-Semitic precursor to Nazi Germany and at the reputation of the anti-Dreyfusards as proto-Nazis or National Front members.

So there you have it — a few additions for your next library list.

Advertisements