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.
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