Book Reviews

In the discipline of history, the single-authored monograph is the basic unit of scholarship, and an academic’s prestige is usually arbitrated by the number of such books that he can produce, and by the influence that these books have had. No one has time to read every book that gets published, though, so reviewing is an important service to the profession. That is, a given issue of the average historical journal will contain about five articles (often preliminary studies that will later appear as chapters in books), and some seventy book reviews. A review is typically about 1000 words long; it summarizes the book in question and gives a judgment of its quality. The idea is that a scholar will get the journal, look through the reviews to see what’s new, read the ones that are relevant to her interests, and if anything looks really compelling, check the books out from the library, order them through interlibrary loan, or even buy them from the publisher (although academic books do tend to be rather pricey).

In her turn, she will be expected to produce book reviews herself. Summarizing a book is time consuming, but not too difficult. It’s an exercise in the art of précis – of making the book’s message as simple as possible, but no simpler. The tricky part is judging the book’s quality. For that, you need to know what else has been published on the same topic, and really good review will cite those works in proof – it will “situate the work in the historiography,” as the jargon has it. The temptation is always there to give the book the benefit of the doubt, on the assumption that the author has more expertise than you do, and nothing would have gotten published if it wasn’t pretty good in the first place. However, a scholar owes it to his readers to seek out and mention any errors of fact or overall weakness. Moreover, some books just aren’t very good, for various reasons. I know someone who will refuse to review such books; she’ll just send them back to the journal editor, since writing an honest review might alienate the author, and “you never know who might be on a fellowship selection committee.” This move is better than just lying about a book’s quality, I suppose, but to me it’s cowardly, and I don’t like it. We get tenure for a reason: the idea is that we are licensed to speak truth to power without having to fear for our livelihoods. Such guaranteed job security is not just about opposing Trump, the alt-right, evangelical Christians, Wall Street, or the State of Israel from our perch in the Ivory Tower, but also about calling out the members of our own profession on their mistakes, as uncomfortable as that might make things for us at our next big conference. (At the same time, I don’t believe in being gratuitously mean, like one grad school professor who gave me a C- on a book review that I had written for his seminar, with the comment “you are too nice!” – I had criticized the book, just not forcefully enough for his liking.)

So when you’re reviewing a book you try to be fair, and if it has any problems to find a middle ground between turd-polishing and being a big jerk. And you definitely try to review the book that was written, not the book that you wanted to read (another thing that too many academics like to do). 

I myself have managed to publish a number of book reviews over the course of my career – by my count 25, some of which have been referenced on this blog. My most interesting experience with book reviewing began in the autumn of 2009, when I received, from the editor of Reviews in History, a draft of a review of my own recently-published book on St. George by Sam Riches, who herself had written a book about the saint. She liked some aspects of my book, but had some reservations about it, and concluded that “it is not the definitive work on St. George in the English tradition – that has yet to be written.” I received the review because one of the features of Reviews in History is that it gives the book’s author a chance to respond. Now, at the time, I believed that one should never respond to a review. This was the message of Paul Fussell’s “Being Reviewed: The A.B.M. and its Theory,” republished in The Boy Scout Handbook and Other Observations. The “A.B.M.,” to Fussell, is the “Author’s Big Mistake,” that is, a “letter from an aggrieved author complaining about a review,” which “generally delivers the most naked view of the author’s wounded vanity” and reads “as if some puling adolescent, cut from the high school basketball team, has published a letter about how good he really is, and written it not very well.” So I let it slide, and the review was published in January 2010, with the notice that “the author of this book has not responded to this review.” 

But I came to revise my opinion over the next couple of years. Fussell’s examples of A.B.M.s were taken mostly from the New York Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, and mostly involved works of fiction, or popular non-fiction. Academic books, I came to perceive, are somewhat of a different matter: they make arguments, which can be defended, and as long as one sticks to the facts without getting testy, then it’s all part of the conversation. I read a number of responses to reviews that were in this vein, and I figured that there would be no harm in my doing it too. So in the summer of 2012, I took some time out of my life to pen a response to her review, which I’m pleased to say that the editor of Reviews in History posted, even at that late date. (For the record, I was never upset that Dr. Riches didn’t give my book fulsome praise. It is better to be talked about than not talked about!) Read both and decide for yourself who makes the better case. 

As a result of my contact with the editor, he asked if I would care to review a book that he had just received. I said that I would be happy to, and he sent it to me. I read it twice, as is my habit – it’s one thing to dash off a review for a graduate seminar the night before the assignment is due, it’s quite another to write for publication – you want to make sure that you have really understood what the author is trying to say, because you want to be fair and you don’t want to appear sloppy in print. This operation took a little longer than I hoped, and I got the review to him two weeks after the deadline he had given me. In response, I received an email with the subject line “Terribly sorry” and a message saying that “I forgot that I had two copies of that book, and I gave the other copy to someone else for review.”

“So I take it that review was better than mine?” I responded jokingly.

“It wasn’t, actually,” he replied. “But I’ve already sent it out for the author’s response!”

I had a good laugh about this. If nothing else it shows the importance of meeting deadlines! As it happens I easily placed my review somewhere else. Generally editors won’t accept unsolicited reviews – they have no idea about the agenda of the would-be reviewer – but after explaining the situation they were happy to publish it, and they didn’t even ask me to shorten it. The editor of Reviews in History asked if there was anything he could do for me. I said that there was a book I was interested in reviewing, and he arranged to have it sent to me. This one I ended up reading three times, because I found it difficult and I wanted to do it justice, even I didn’t like it very much (attributable largely to a disciplinary divide – I am a historian, the author was a literary critic). The review was published in the fall of 2013; the author, as I had originally, chose not respond. 

That summer, I had further contact with the editor of Reviews in History on account of another review of my book that I discovered in the Journal of English and Germanic Philology. By that point my book had been reviewed about a dozen times in various venues – again, some people liked it, others didn’t, and that’s fine. This review, however, sounded strangely familiar. As I read it, I realized that a large chunk of it was simply plagiarized from Sam Riches’s review in Reviews in History! Like a good citizen, I immediately informed Dr. Riches and the editors of Reviews in History and the JEGP about this gross violation of scholarly protocol, and the JEGP withdrew the review in its next number. The author, one Giovanni Narabito of the University of Messina, did not seem to have much of an institutional presence there, and a bit of googling eventually revealed a plausible explanation. The Wikipedia entry for Italian crime boss Giuseppe Narabito explains that his clan “established a cell in Messina on Sicily,” where they “exercise considerable power up to the present. The clan turned the University of Messina into their private fiefdom, ordering that degrees, academic posts, and influence be awarded to favored associates.”

It could be that “Narabito” is the Italian equivalent of Smith or Jones but it sure looks like someone was promoted for non-academic reasons here. But why not just stick to protection rackets and drug smuggling, I wonder? Those activities are a lot more lucrative!

Robert K. Massie, 1929-2019

From the New York Times:

Robert K. Massie, a Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer who wrote gripping, tautly narrated and immensely popular books on giants of Russian history, died on Monday at his home in Irvington, N.Y. He was 90.

The cause was complications of Alzheimer’s disease, said his wife, the literary agent Deborah Karl.

In monumental biographies of Peter the Great (1672-1725), Catherine the Great (1729-96) and Czar Nicholas II and Czarina Alexandra, who were assassinated with their five children and others in 1918, Mr. Massie captivated audiences with detailed accounts that read to many like engrossing novels.

I’ve read only one of his books: Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War (1991), which I enjoyed. The article claims that:

Some criticized Dreadnought as lacking disclosures from original materials — a regular criticism of Mr. Massie’s reliance on secondary sources — but others praised his dramatic description of a grand failure in crisis management.

But that was not the impression I got when I read the book; in fact, I thought that he relied too much on extended quotations from letters, speeches, or telegrams, etc. (Yes, primary sources are important, and some of these make for good reading, but I’ve always thought that it’s bad form to quote them repeatedly and at length – exert some power over your sources and incorporate their ideas into your own prose.) Otherwise, the book was quite compelling, and it was fascinating to learn about such people as Kaiser Wilhelm, Bismarck, Holstein, Eulenburg, or Hohenlohe; and on the other side Queen Victoria, Lord Salisbury, Joseph Chamberlain, Cecil Rhodes, the young Winston Churchill, Herbert Asquith, Jacky Fisher, or David Lloyd George, and about the process by which Nelson’s Victory was transformed into Fisher’s Dreadnought. Those two strands never really come together, and the book doesn’t even end with the Battle of Jutland, but it remains an engaging portrait of that important period of European history parallel to Barbara Tuchman’s The Proud Tower (1966). 

Brian Tierney, 1922-2019

Brian Tierney, former Goldwin Smith Professor of Medieval History at Cornell University and the first Bowmar Professor of Humanistic Studies, has died at the age of 97. 

Wikipedia says that “his speciality was medieval church history, focusing on the structure of the medieval church and the medieval state, and the influences of the interaction between these on the development of Western institutions. He was widely recognized as a leading authority on medieval church law and political thought. His work in these fields also proved relevant to some of the modern debates about Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Tierney’s most recent book was Liberty and Law: The Idea of Permissive Natural Law, 1100-1800 (2014). He continued to work on medieval history until the time of his death.”

James McPherson on the 1619 Project

From World Socialist Web Site (hat tip: Glenn Reynolds):

Q. What was your initial reaction to the 1619 Project?

A. Well, I didn’t know anything about it until I got my Sunday paper, with the magazine section entirely devoted to the 1619 Project. Because this is a subject I’ve long been interested in I sat down and started to read some of the essays. I’d say that, almost from the outset, I was disturbed by what seemed like a very unbalanced, one-sided account, which lacked context and perspective on the complexity of slavery, which was clearly, obviously, not an exclusively American institution, but existed throughout history. And slavery in the United States was only a small part of a larger world process that unfolded over many centuries. And in the United States, too, there was not only slavery but also an antislavery movement. So I thought the account, which emphasized American racism—which is obviously a major part of the history, no question about it—but it focused so narrowly on that part of the story that it left most of the history out.

So I read a few of the essays and skimmed the rest, but didn’t pursue much more about it because it seemed to me that I wasn’t learning very much new. And I was a little bit unhappy with the idea that people who did not have a good knowledge of the subject would be influenced by this and would then have a biased or narrow view.

Read the whole thing.

Quote of the Day

“History is no panacea for our national ailments. But a nation cannot forget its past, obliterate it, subdivide it into micro-histories, alter it, and bury it. Too often in the last half-century, Canadians seem to have done just that, and it is time to restore the past to its proper place in our national cultural consciousness, in our schools and universities, and in our public discourse.”

-Jack Granatstein, Who Killed Canadian History? (1998).

Crusading

• Philip Jenkins reviews Jay Rubenstein’s Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream: The Crusades, Apocalyptic Prophecy, and the End of History (OUP, 2019)

By their own lights, the Crusades were remarkably successful. In a series of military struggles that had the church’s blessing, armed expeditions extended and reinforced the influence of Latin Catholic Christianity and of the Catholic Church. They conquered Mus­lim kingdoms in Spain and Sicily, subjugated pagan realms in the Baltic lands, and smashed heretical movements in southern France. For each outburst of militant zeal, warriors expected to receive all the spiritual benefits they would have received had they traveled to Jerusalem.

Jerusalem, however, was the Cru­sades’ one region of conspicuous failure. Christian forces could hold neither that holy city nor the territorial footholds they had secured throughout the Levant. In a brilliant and thoughtful book, Jay Rubenstein shows how that exception proved important to Latin Christian Europe and traces the legacy of that searing disappointment.

See Steve Donoghue’s review also.

• According to French forensic pathologist Philippe Charlier, King Louis IX died on crusade in 1270, not on account of dysentery, but on account of scurvy:

Caused by a lack of vitamin C, the painful and potentially fatal disease was the scourge of sailors until the turn of the 19th century.

While the local food in Tunisia where the Eighth Crusade landed in 1270 contained lots of vitamin-C rich salads and citrus fruit, the crusaders’ meat-heavy diet and Saint Louis’ extreme piety appears to have been his undoing.

“His diet wasn’t very balanced,” said Charlier… “He put himself through all manner of penances, and fasting. Nor was the crusade as well prepared as it should have been,” he told AFP.

“They did not take water with them or fruit and vegetables.”

More at the link.

Medieval Details

Currently reading Frederick Forsyth’s The Negotiator (1989). I was pleased to note that the late great Maurice Keen has a cameo role in it:

When Simon and Jenny came back he nodded benignly and told them: “You’re with Dr. Keen, I believe. Corner of the quadrangle, up the stairs to the top.”

When they reached the cluttered room at the top of the stairs their tutor in medieval history and introduced themselves, Jenny called him “Professor” and Simon called him “Sir.” Dr. Keen beamed at them over his glasses.

“Now,” he said merrily, “there are two things and only two that I do not allow. One is wasting your time and mine; the other is calling me ‘sir.’ ‘Dr. Keen’ will do nicely. Then we’ll graduate to ‘Maurice.’ By the way, Jenny, I’m not a professor either. Professors have chairs, and as you see I do not; at least not on in good repair.”

He gestured happily at the collection of semi-collapsed upholstery and bade his students be comfortable. Simon sank his frame into a legless Queen Anne chair that left him three inches off the floor, and together they began to consider Jan Hus and the Hussite revolution in medieval Bohemia. Simon grinned. He knew he was going to enjoy Oxford.

Alas, the author should have consulted with Keen about the contents of his book. On page 187 we read:

He had a light lunch in a small sandwich bar off the street, called Crutched Friars, where monks once hobbled with one leg bound behind them to cause pain for the greater glory of God, and he made up his mind what he would do.

Needless to say, the “Crutched Friars” didn’t use that type of crutch, at least not habitually. Their name derives from the Latin Fratres Cruciferi, meaning “cross-bearing brethren,” and refers to the staves that they carried with them, which were surmounted by crucifixes.

It’s somewhat like how Edmund Crouchback, younger brother of King Edward I, was not actually deformed, but simply a crusader, “crouchback” being a corruption of “cross-back,” referring to the crosses that crusaders would stitch onto their clothing.

One of my happiest moments in graduate school was when I was reading Keen’s Origins of the English Gentleman (2002), and I encountered a sentiment that sounded familiar. “I made that point myself once,” I said to my wife, who, with eminent good sense, replied, “you should check the footnote.” Sure enough, the reference was to “J. Good, ‘London Guild and Diocesan Heraldry during the Reformation,’ The Coat of Arms 179 (Autumn 1997): 96-102.” Man, I was over the moon!

Tony Horwitz, 1958-2019

From The Vineyard Gazette (hat tip: David Parker):

Author, Historian Tony Horwitz Dies

The West Tisbury author and historian Tony Horwitz died suddenly in Washington, D.C., on Monday, his wife Geraldine Brooks confirmed.

Mr. Horwitz was 60. He had been on tour for his new book, Spying on the South.

He was a longtime journalist and Pultizer Prize winner who wrote acclaimed historical nonfiction, including the best-selling Confederates in the Attic and Midnight Rising.

He lived year-round in West Tisbury, and was scheduled to appear at the Martha’s Vineyard Book Festival this summer, among other things.