Words, ideas, primary sources, history and a bit thrown in about writers.

I write and I read books. Either of those activities will inevitably lead you to think about the nature of the written word. Up until quite recently, it was the only way your thoughts and ideas could survive your death without any sort of distortion. Nobody was half-remembering, interpreting what you said or bending it to suit their purposes; it was all there in black and white and in your own words.

I still recall to this day, the excitement as a young man with which I purchased a copy of “The Conquest of Gaul”. I was going to be reading a book written by Julius Caesar. Not the character Julius Caesar of Shakespeare’s play, not the Julius Caesar argued about in history books or the Julius Caesar of myth and legend but the real Julius Caesar; the man by the man himself.

It did not disappoint. It is not by any stretch of the imagination great literature but he had the military man’s eye for detail and especially for people. He takes the time to describe, and therefore bring to life, the people around him at the time and the tribes of Gaul who have long since been turned to dust, together with their cultures, religions, settlements, artefacts, languages, ways of life and even their very names. Any autobiographical writing will come with its own self-serving baggage but it’s the small details about the people at a time almost two millennia ago, that I found utterly fascinating.

There’s a current vogue in the entertainment industry to produce what’s called “sword and sandal” epics and I can see more than one example of real people mentioned in the book who have been “borrowed” in their entirety, including their names, to serve as characters. I have no problem with this and indeed, it’s good to see writers going back to primary sources.

It’s a book I can recommend to the general reader, especially one who has an interest in ancient people or history and wants to get a good look inside the mind of a military genius, which he certainly was. When it comes to matters military, he’s a surgeon in an age of butchers, as you can see when he writes about each military problem which, at the primary level, is what the book is all about. For its time and the events it describes, this book is what’s called a primary source.

Primary sources are hard work. You do have to go and read the whole book and think about not only what the writer has actually written but the spin, and there will be one, that their personality and worldview has imparted. More importantly, if you want to understand it accurately, you also have to learn to see their world through the prism of the accepted morality of their era and not your own one. Too much history is written that has an undertone of disapproval of long dead people for somehow failing to live up to a moral code which has yet to be invented for a few centuries.

You learn to think about your own perfect moral code and wonder just how bad it’s going to look to someone born a few centuries in the future. You may hold a certain historical person in high regard but you better be ready to be shocked or disappointed by some of the things you’ll come across in their writings and sometimes bitterly so. They’d probably be shocked at what you’re being shocked at. You can be amazed too.

We’re none of us perfect or constant and over the course of a lifetime, we all change our views and in some cases, radically. If you consider Eric Blair or George Orwell as he’s more commonly known, there’s the political journey of his life written down in his collected works. In essence, it reflects Churchill’s saying that if you’re not left-wing when you’re young, you don’t have a heart. If you’re not right-wing when you’re older, you don’t have a head. Was that particular journey the correct one? Who can say but it was certainly influenced by a life of experiences which came as a direct result of him acting on his political convictions. In the end, he fought body and soul against some of the ideas he loved in his youth. Perhaps he could write cleanly, clearly and honestly about those ideas because he had real experiences to draw on. They happened to him so he was obliged to examine his feelings and thoughts about them in the aftermath. This all comes out in the directness of his writing.

A good writer who’s accumulated real experiences is always very readable but they tend to pay a price for those experiences. Blair was no exception to this. There are writers I love and I’ve learnt to keep my nose out of their private lives in return for the pleasure they’ve given me as a reader. I’m interested in the product and not the price they paid to produce it, though I acknowledge that a sacrifice has nearly always been made, especially by the good ones. At the end of the day, it’s the book that’s important, not the writer. That would be their view and it’s mine.

They can write about the bad times because they’ve seen them and as a reader, it simply rings true because you know how that feels. They can write about the good things too, because those times are all the better for having got through hard times. As Ray Bradbury said, it’s all about the number of square inches of reality on each page.

Some individuals take a perverse delight in searching for, inventing or exposing the feet of clay of other people who’ve produced some fine pieces of work or achieved things in their lifetimes. They write the book or article and the hatchet job makes them a few bucks. This is more a reflection on them than on their victims, who’re usually safely beyond a possible legal action since they’re already dead; Jackals living off corpses. I’ve met people like that and couldn’t help but come away with the unmistakable impression that their alacrity to besmirch other people’s reputations was somehow fuelled not only by their own feelings of low self-worth but also their bitter realisation that they’d never be able to come anywhere near to producing the quality of work or the achievements that their victims did. It’s easier to attack their reputations than their work but that’s enough on the bottom feeders of the literary world.

On writers with no reservoir of experiences to call upon, they’re rarely if ever readable unless your tastes run to thinly disguised self-psychoanalysis or navel gazing. The brutal truth is, some writers simply have nothing of consequence within them to write about. All too often, the best they can resort to is writing for and at, an audience of literary critics or easy reviewers because the ordinary person finds their output overly complex and uninteresting. Essentially, they’re cringing behind a shield of wordy intellectualism; if you can’t understand or appreciate their book, you’re obviously ignorant or worse, simply thick. Bollocks. They’re writing for such a narrow market that they might as well be knocking out variants of the “Swedish dentist drills the Blondes” genre. While they might for once be giving some real pleasure to a slightly bigger readership, the product will come and go just as prematurely. Those double meanings were all intentional by the way.

I’ve found in general that the enduring books that deal with the big new ideas of their time are always written to be approachable by the general reader. The writer wants the reader to understand the ideas being presented because he loves those ideas. They’re his children. They go to some pains to describe the context in which the idea exists, previous ideas in the area and other current and competing ideas in the area. They nearly always manage to present the big idea in a form that’s both accurate and simple.

They can do this because the same gift is at work here in both having that idea and explaining it. They have a facility to pick out a pattern, natural law or idea from what most of us would see as the jumbled confusion of reality. Being able to express those observations clearly is just the corollary of that big talent. They can make out that big idea because they think clearly and expressing themselves clearly follows just as naturally.

They see into the truth of things in blessedly simply ways and they can take you by the hand and bring you on a journey to meet their ideas.

If someone can’t explain their big idea unambiguously in less than a paragraph, I usually suspect there isn’t much merit to their idea and more importantly, neither does short-term history. You’ll find such supposedly highly acclaimed and important books ten years later selling badly as job lots in front of your local five and dime store.

I have an interest in history and especially America history of the nineteenth century. A loved one bought me a book on the American Civil War, knowing it was a period of history I’m fond of, and I have to confess that despite the glowing reviews on the reverse by reviewers I’d never heard of, the thing was simply unreadable. I couldn’t get past the third page. I can hold my reader’s breath a long time but faced with huge paragraph after huge paragraph containing only huge, long and grammatically perfect sentences, I was turning blue in the face.

The only question I have about the book is not whether it had anything useful to say (it can’t have) but what publisher in their right mind ever bothered to spend time and money publishing it. To rub salt into the wound, the standard and clarity of the written English of that era is streets ahead of so much produced for public consumption today. Indeed, it’s one of the pleasures of studying that period. You may not believe it, but the literacy rates in America at that time were higher than those that exist today. As Nietzsche said in his usual half-of-a-decent-idea fashion; progress is a modern idea and therefore a false one. In this instance, I’m forced to agree with him but only this once.

If you’re truly interested in a subject, find out the primary sources, secure a copy of them, sit down and read them in their entirety yourself. The person who had that idea or lived in those times or made that history will be talking to you directly. Never be content to accept a summary of a précis of a digest of an overview of a journalist’s two minute skim-read of a Wiki page written by God only knows who. That’s just Chinese whispers with a vengeance. If you care about the subject, you owe yourself and it a lot better treatment than that. It’s your choice.

If you’re interested in the US Civil War, find General Ulysses S. Grant’s own book. If it’s evolution, hunt up Darwin’s book; it’s eminently readable. If it’s advertising and applied mass psychology, get a copy of Vance Packard’s book. If it’s the fight against Fascism, find Churchill’s history books. If it’s economics, buy yourself a copy of the Wealth of Nations. If it’s the Wild West, rustle up a copy of Cole Younger’s autobiography. You want to know what it was like to be emperor of Rome for twenty years? Read the Meditations of Marcus Antonius Aurelius. What the hell, read Hitler’s Mein Kampf and Marx’s Das Kapital too.

Reading about ideas, which were subsequently exposed as terrible ones by history, is important because you will see those same old tired ideas, in a new suit of clothes, being touted around again in your lifetime. There’s a saying that it’s not guns that kill people but people. It’s wrong. What ultimately kills large numbers of people are bad ideas. Learn to recognize those bad ideas because they never go away, they just get rebranded and recycled.

You’ll find there are lots of books written about many of these books. You’ll also find the only thing they’ve done is to make the underlying book and the ideas within it, more complex and impenetrable. Thanks for nothing, don’t call us, we’ll call you. If a book needs another book written on it to make it understandable, then it’s my experience that it’s rarely worth reading in the first place.

I don’t think there are a hundred “must read” books outside the fevered and greedy imaginations of publishers. It’s probably less than fifty or more likely thirty and the majority are not only eminently readable but just plain outright interesting. Any one of these can be read in the time it takes to watch three game shows or spend a week commuting on a train to work. Go get them but remember; it’ll be the thirty books that have meaning and relevance to you and your life. If a book doesn’t have you by the throat within a few chapters, donate it to your local charity shop.

You don’t need to be Einstein. You don’t need a good or a classical education; you just need to be able to read and be interested. You can agree or disagree with the voices of the people you’re going to be listening to. If they’re talking too fast, close the book and take a break. If you don’t quite get what they’re saying, stop everything and read that passage again. If you don’t like what they’re saying, you can stop them until you’ve had time to think through exactly why you don’t like it. You’re the boss now.

What I do know is; you won’t be bored; you can’t be, because you’ll be having a conversation with history.

©Pointman

ps. As I touched on the standard of written English at the time of the American Civil War, a reading of a letter by an officer called Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah back home. The clarity of expression, emotion and the beauty of the language employed are quite simply stunning. Close your eyes and listen  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSprdaGol34&feature=related

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Comments
22 Responses to “Words, ideas, primary sources, history and a bit thrown in about writers.”
  1. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    Thank you for this most interesting perspective on the literary world. Primary sources, as you describe them, are indeed akin to time-travel and one can be transported to another time and place, listen to the ‘voices’ of the people in the context of their own time, language and culture. So much more satisfying than to read of some other author’s interpretation of events and the characters involved.

    For that reason, most of my reading on the wars of the 20th century have been from the diaries and first-hand accounts of participants; from the military (enlisted men and commanders) and from the civilians who were overrun by events.

    In the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, one can see a wealth of such material – from the stained and tattered pages of diaries, usually written in pencil, probably by candlelight in the muddy bottom of a trench on the eve of battle, to the personal items belonging to the authors; perhaps a rusted tobacco tin, wallets and faded photos of loved ones, all contributing to ‘fleshing out’ the writer as an ordinary man leading an ordinary life until the vagaries of politics and warfare either robbed him of his life or sometimes his mind.

    It is reassuring to see that such personal exhibits share equal place with the medals and honours afforded those who fought ‘in our name’ and under our flag.

    Prisoners of war wrote especially poignant accounts of their experiences, bringing a raw reality to events that many historians see only in terms of numbers, battles and statistics. We can only wonder what the men of Caersar’s legions might have written had their thoughts and experiences survived his brilliant campaigns.

    With regard to the changing education standards in the last hundred years – ever tried to read some of the original ‘classics’ to your children? Such works as “Alice in Wonderland” or “Peter Pan” or “Treasure Island” or even Dickens before they were all thoroughly masticated and regurgitated through the Disney maw?
    It’s like translating a foreign language as-you-read. Anything of more than a couple of syllables proves to be a challenge.

    Thanks for reminding us of the true wealth of our culture and education. You’ve got me hot-footing it to the library …. again.

    ps. I listened to your ps. Stunning indeed.

  2. Edward says:

    Wotcha Pointy,

    You are quite right about written American English, my father long ago pointed this out to me but then, he had read much and spread his literary scope generously.

    There is a precision to using words and those ‘colonials’ because of their history, steeped in the American way of English, used an economy of words, which is, was beautiful in it’s simplicity.

    In a kind of a similar way people who have English as a second language, fascinate me in the way they form sentences and in the way they construct their dialogue, how like a breath of fresh air it seems sometimes.

    But, back to the American civil war, the English had three civil wars, two in England and one in America [was that you or my Da?] and how terrible they all were.
    There’s nothing like a bit of internecine warfare to ‘summon up the blood’. I still think that it was one of the biggest tragedies ever to befall the United States, the killing was truly awful, in it’s scope, barbarity and numbers of casualties. And throw in a few Irishmen as well, then you have a recipe for bloodletting, on a truly epically gory scale.

    Switching back to the literary theme. Learning means books and more books, when I read about the tomes a young Isaac Newton imbibed when just a mere stripling, it is altogether humbling, even more so when you realise not only did he understand them fully, he was already ahead of them in his mind, genius! and Genius sadly, is not a word which is used in it’s correct context anymore……..
    But that’s another sidetrack, I’ll not wander down, I’ve roamed enough here tonight.

    But books are also just for personal delectation too, I remember as a young uncouth lad, reading Prester John and being transported by Buchan into a fabulous and exotic world, the thrill of that book, has never left me.

    Yes books are a joy for me…………but, If one walks into a bookshop these days, one is assailed by lurid and glossy, tawdry, dross, pertaining to be the ‘inside track’ on so and so, or a ghost written auto-biographical account. Maybe, of a twit sportsman who was only born 21 years ago, dear me, what have they done, seen or, experienced that is worth relating?

    “Bigger, faster, more, more, more”, as the dentist’s latest blond conquest said.

    It all makes me tired, I don’t much venture into bookshops any longer, sadly – it used to be one of my pleasures in life.

    Your take, is as a writer Pointy, mine from, merely a reader of books. Your thoughts and your insight has opened a small window on your soul, which I thank you for, sharing and ‘baring’!

    Edward.

  3. Edward says:

    BTW Pointy,

    Have a gander at this and scroll down to a post by D Singh, 24.0311 @12.11 also a good article too by his Grace:
    http://archbishop-cranmer.blogspot.com/2011/03/socrates-forced-to-drink-political.html

    Deja vu?

  4. Pointman says:

    As a blogger, you sometimes wonder whether putting together a couple of thousand words on things you care about is equivalent to putting a message in a bottle, throwing it into the tide and hoping that someone somewhere may eventually reply. To get two substantial replies like Swan’s and Ed’s that you have to go away and think about means a lot. Thanks lads.

    Pointman

  5. Edward says:

    P,

    I listened to the P.S.[Ballou] again, such poignancy, sad but also truly uplifting, words can say much if used in this manner but there is still the feeling of [imo] intrusion into somebody’s very personal feelings and thoughts, I feel like – that I am tresspassing.

    Ah well! Back to it.

    Ed.

  6. Edward says:

    Or even trespassing, doh.

  7. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    To see one of your bottles bobbing in the waves is always worth wading into the surf to retrieve it. The material you offer us for discussion is always of interest, so please be assured the work you do is appreciated.

    I agree with Edward – it certainly is voyeuristic to intrude on such intimacy.

  8. meltemian says:

    Pointman,
    You have just inspired me to re-visit the Diaries of Samuel Pepys. As an example of fascinating detail set against an important period it takes some beating.

  9. Pointman says:

    @Swan,

    There’s a wonderful book called “Forgotten voices of The Great War”. It’s really a selection from the sound archives of The Imperial War Museum. It’s just the people on all sides telling their stories. Sensibly, the author has just arranged the testaments chronologically; these people speak too movingly of their experiences to need any commentary.

    A link for it http://www.amazon.co.uk/Forgotten-Voices-Great-War-History/dp/0091888875

    Radiohead’s memorium for Harry Patch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nRtDWMke79c&feature=related

    Pointman

  10. Blackswan says:

    Pointman

    Thanks for those suggestions. Both my grandfathers were WW1 veterans of The Lost Generation who finally succumbed to their injuries in 1924. I’ve often wondered what gives me such extraordinary empathy with men I never knew and the life and times of a too-often forgotten world.

    I can only surmise it’s ‘genetic memory’.

    “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
    Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn
    At the going down of the sun and in the morning
    We will remember them.”

  11. Pointman says:

    @Ed,

    The American Civil War was the first modern war in my opinion; that’s to say it was one industrialised nation fighting the other. The tactics used at the start were basically Napoleonic but the weapons were a lot more advanced and lethal. By the end of it, trench warfare was common and even the Blitzkrieg style of mobile attack was being poineered by Gen. Sherman. None of these lessons were taken on board before the outbreak of the Great War forty nine years later and the same horrendious casulties ensued.

    I’d agree on the books thing but would have to add that though there’s a bewildering amount of them to choose from, there seems to be little variety. Too many coffee table books.

    Pointy

  12. Edward says:

    “The American Civil War was the first modern war in my opinion; that’s to say it was one industrialised nation fighting the other”

    Slaughter on an industrial scale P and I don’t say that glibly either.

    “there seems to be little variety. Too many coffee table books”

    It is true, [I think] I’ve said to you, in these emporia, that, how small is the area for real books – if any are there to be viewed. Of course, the University bookshops were always worth a walk round.
    I blame Amazon.

    Ed.

    • Pointman says:

      Pop into Ras’s place for a chat nighthawk – http://www.founding-sons.co.uk/SMF/chat/

      Pointy

    • Peter Kovachev says:

      My guess is that things will improve, Edward. Publishing is a funny business nowadays; production expenses, which are related to regulations, labour costs and energy prices are up, risks are higher, too many investors, experts, committees, regulations, social pressures…sort of what’s been happening in the movie industry, where the aim is to hit for the presumed median. Kindle and printing systems which can produce books locally, with impression and binding as part of a single process, will revolutionize the industry and revive the small independent publisher. This, along with blogs who’ve taken a bite out of MSM, will further weaken the self-appointed cultural “gate-keepers” we’re learning to do without.

  13. Edward says:

    Soz P, went for shut eye.

    Ed.

  14. meltemian says:

    Slightly OT – What happened to all the second-hand book shops that used to be everywhere?
    They seem to have been replaced, in the UK anyway, by Oxfam shops unless you happen to live in Hay-on Wye.
    Buying from Amazon is OK if you already know what you want but nothing can replace browsing through shelves of often musty books, previously loved by other people, and finding treasures you never knew existed.
    When I was young and broke I used to spend ages trawling through the shelves of our local second-hand book shop and always came out with something wonderful.

    • Peter Kovachev says:

      LOL! The second hand book shops here, in Toronto, have all but disappeared too……and I’m still broke most of the time, although no longer young.

  15. Peter Kovachev says:

    Hi Pointman,

    Good idea of yours to appear at WUWT now and again, as you just did. The science folks there are brilliant and they can rip apart many of the alarmist’s fibs, but it’s not and never was about science alone…something many are reluctant to aknowledge, as it leads them to areas that are too fuzzy for their tastes. You startled a few of us last time, during the “Peter Gleick Affair,” when you reminded us that this is truly a war, a very important war, as “cliate policies” will determine the fate of billions of lives, and here you remind us about the centrality of language and awareness of history. This one struck a chord with me:

    “Reading about ideas, which were subsequently exposed as terrible ones by history, is important because you will see those same old tired ideas, in a new suit of clothes, being touted around again in your lifetime. There’s a saying that it’s not guns that kill people but people. It’s wrong. What ultimately kills large numbers of people are bad ideas. Learn to recognize those bad ideas because they never go away, they just get rebranded and recycled.”

    Ha!. Those of us who’ve gone around the block more than one lap are bobbing our heads to that. The trouble is, though, that it’s nearly imposible to get this point across to anyone who hasn’t turned the first corner yet. And it’s not just about age; ideas and ideals hobble many of us and we never do see much of our sidewalk patch even until the day we topple over that event horizon that’s waiting for all of us. For example, tell someone that international relations haven’t really changed since the Bronze Age or mud-walled cities and they’ll laugh at you. And yet, our civilization is still connected to antiquity and the biblical world because of this. Substantially, I’d say, not much has really changed; how do you hold on to what you have, who do you let in, who do you prefer as a neihbour, how you defend what you have, when is it easier or more prudent to pay tribute to the aggressor, when to defeat and how, when to build-up alliances through trade, to share beliefs and festivals, to inter-marry or not and so on. Now we talk about foreign aid, defense policies, diplomacy, alliances, trade agreements, peace initialtives, cultural exchanges, immigration policies, human rights and so on. More words for the same stuff. An in the end it’s always the same story: Get too rich and comfortable, too immersed in navel-gazing, too philosophical and cowardly, too stratified and with too many eaters and not enough producers, or in other words, exceed your production and defense capacities and you’re toast. It’s that simple, methinks.

    But to steer myself back to the topic of language, that too seems to be an indicator of a society’s state of overall health or “wellness,” as currently fashionable jargon would have it. The noticable decline in quality we see nowadays isn’t a quirk or just poor quality control. I think it’s a symptom of our society’s unravelling and move towards a dysfunctional way of doing business. This seems to be the fate of all influential languages; they grow and flourish with the vitality of its users and decline once the bureaucrats and ivory tower pedants take a good hold of them.

    • Pointman says:

      Hi Peter,

      I agree it’s not just about the science, which is why I prefer to concentrate on the politics and infowar aspects here. Also, the science is well covered by other blogs such as WUWT.

      There are lessons we can learn at school from history but the curriculum of the subject looks more like touchy feely sociology nowadays. Certainly, some of the lessons from history can be translated into very engrossing works of fiction; Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 being great examples. Perhaps that’s the way forward.

      Pointman

      • Peter Kovachev says:

        Funnily enough, having come out of commie Eastern Europe as a kid, with the memory of the lilac-scented Prague Spring and the let-down of Warsaw Pact tanks crawling and crapping over one of the most enchanting cities, I found 1984 confusing and irrelevant in my teens. Only later, as I learned to discern the subtleties of our culture in the West, did I begin to understand it. For me, though, it was Herbert’s Dune series which for reason gave me my first mature look at the patterns and foibles of history.

        And since you brought up the infowar issue, Pointman, the proverbial elephant we miss with all the bickering over the science, I’d suggest it’s high time for you to sound the bugle again with another article on WUWT. Nudge-nudge, hint-hint. If you recall we, the usual suspects and loiterers there, loved it and for a few days at least, banged our tankards on the boards and rattled our rusting swords. T’was a long-term attitude-adjuster for many too, I’d say.

      • Pointman says:

        Hi Peter,

        I was last in Prague a few years back. It’s a beautiful city. There’s a real buzz about it, as if they’ve shrugged off the paralysing experience of Soviet Communism without breaking pace. It’s hard now to imagine Alexander Dubček, Jan Palack, the Prague Spring and tanks in the streets.

        I’ve read a lot of Frank Herbert, my favourite being “The dragon in the sea.” I liked the original Dune but struggled with the follow up books.

        There’s still a bit of a whinge and say “oh well, there’s nothing to be done” attitude on the skeptic side, that’s reminiscent of the early days but things have changed. The change is there but it’s subtle. We’ve got a few years of battling left and I’ll keep plugging away.

        Pointman

  16. Beth Cooper says:

    Pointman, thank you for your article which speaks to me, and for the letter
    by Sullivan Ballou. Reading history and some fiction enlarges and deepens
    your own experience and I cannot imagine life without books.
    Beth the serf.

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