Tuesday, 19 January 2010

The siren song of history


The fourth installment in Bernard Cornwell's Saxon Stories, Sword Song, is a lot like the previous three books; this is both good and bad. This is good because I decided to read this novel in part because I wanted to know pretty much exactly what I was getting and to take satisfaction in a yarn told if not fantastically, at least with enough workman-like skill to be inoffensive. I got this with Sword Song.

However, as the series wears on - the fifth, The Burning Land, was published in late 2009 - I'm beginning to become less satisfied with Cornwell's reliability. I think I would, in the end, like a little more spirit here. Cornwell has clearly hit upon a formula that works for him but I would prefer my books to be written with at least the appearance of a little more investment and energy than Sword Song displays. The problem is that while all of the Saxon books have great moments, the great moments are much more concentrated near the beginning of the series than near the end of it.

Sword Song was, in fact, an absolutely irresistible page-turner during its climax - I've spent the afternoon ignoring customers and desperately turning pages to reach its conclusion. But the majority of the book did not grab me this way; in fact, I've spent the past few days snarking to my husband (who's also reading this series) about how I know Cornwell can do better, because I saw him do so in the earlier installments (the first two in particular). Sadly, all hubby can do is agree; he will definitely read the fifth book and I likely will too. But it may be like watching the 53rd season of Friends - a bad idea with a depressing outcome.

What Cornwell's Saxon Stories have done for me beyond providing reading pleasure, is got me taking the leap into reading actual history, instead of just historical novels or verye olde literature. All the talk in Sword Song of the Roman ruins scattered throughout England has inspired me to order some books from the library on the Romans' invasion and settlement of the area. I'm really looking forward to these books but I'm also afraid for three reasons:

1) I'm worried that some punk will have made notes, etc in the books and I'll have to send them back and they'll be the only available copies. This has happened to me a number of times with library books. I cannot abide reading books that some little shit has used as a school book. Not only does the book crime drive me towards apoplexy and murder, but more importantly, I can't read books with writing in them because it reminds me of school and while I feel awesome, it's still too soon. The year 3451 may still be too soon for that one.

2) I'm afraid of the non-fiction and its bad writing. Yes, I know that non-fiction is by no means necessarily badly written. But I fear that the majority of people who read non-fiction don't care about the writing, only the information or ideas presented, and so non-fiction writers are allowed to get away with too much. But I will try to remain focused and calm and open-minded. And I'll have my blankie nearby in times of intense stress.

3) Having never studied history nor really read any, how will I know if the books I've chosen are accurate, well-researched books? How will I know that these authors didn't just make stuff up? You could say that if they reference a lot of other history books, then we know they've done their research - but how does anyone know if those books aren't made up? These are questions I only rarely came up against in my work in literature, in part because I worked on texts about which very little record, if any, existed. This was freeing. But if history is your business...?

This was a major issue once while I was in grad school. Back in the day, my cohorts and I had to write comprehensive exams. One was a specialist in each of the areas we would be focusing on for our research, and the other was a generalist exam we all had to write. The generalist exam consisted of being able to do some close readings and memorizing thousands of often interesting but rarely useful factoids about various aspects of the history of English literature.

I recall the students in the year ahead of us advising the use of The Oxford Companion to English Literature instead of some other book, which I've forgotten. Another student and I asked why they recommended the Oxford over the other and they said it was more factually accurate. We asked them in what ways, how they knew this, etc - and they didn't have answers. That scared the shit out of me just a little.

Anyway, we muddled through with our Oxfords but I've heard that the latest edition of the Oxford Companion is a bit of disaster - full of glaring omissions, such as David Mitchell. Um, hello? The man's fifth novel is out this summer, he's been nominated for the Booker every time he's published (or almost every time), and he's widely considered by many to be Britain's shiniest of shiny literary wunderkinds. See why I'm scared of history?

In spite of this alarmist rant, I will still attempt the history books because I want to know something about the earliest of English history; something that doesn't come from a Cornwell book. Except for referring to the part in the Bible about how to find out if a lady has whored herself out to someone not her husband (OT, Numbers, Ch. 5), Cornwell never reveals his sources.

Nonetheless, I will surrender myself to the call of history and follow, even if those are some sharp rocks over there near that waterfall and I can't think straight because of some lovely choir serenading me nearby...

3 comments:

Stefanie said...

You find out what books and facts to trust when you read history just like you do when you study literature. You look for books that are mentioned in well respected sources or by people who are experts in the field. Then you read a bunch of stuff and learn more and read more stuff and learn more and get to know about the different controversies and arguments and then decide for yourself whose theories or accounts you agree with. Easy ;)

heidenkind said...

I have the same qualms about reading books on Donatello, and that's actually in my field. The thing about history is, you don't REALLY know if anything is crap or not unless you do the original research. The person who wrote the book might have gotten misinformation from another book, that got it from another book, and for all you know everything in every history book ever written could be just a gigantic pack of lies.

So have fun with that. ;)

Colleen said...

You're both so supportive - how can I ever thank you? ;)