Wednesday, November 24, 2010

An Honest Review

Readers of the LRB got a significant dose of honesty earlier this month when Richard J. Evans, Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, offered a scathing review of Timothy Snyder's Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.

The height of the thrashing came about three-quarters of the way through the essay: "What he [Snyder] really wants to do is tell us about the sufferings of the people who lived in the area he knows most about. Assuming we know nothing about any of this, he bludgeons us with facts and figures until we're reeling from it all...[It's] as if Snyder doesn't want us to think critically about what he's telling us, just to feel the pain he's describing."

I have to say, I respect Evans for his review - not only because his arguments are well grounded, but because he fights the tendency among (a fair number of) reviewers to praise pretty much everything they are handed.

Actually, Evans's essay got me thinking about a book that I started several months ago, but which I have been unable to finish. That book is Miranda Carter's abundently-praised George, Nicholas, and Wilhelm: Three Royal Cousins and the Road to World War I.

Let me cut to it: I am perplexed by the acclaim this tome has garnered. Not only is Carter a very (very!) difficult writer to read, her sense for history, and for historical causation, is entirely lacking.

Rarely (in the first 250 pages, at least) does Carter move beyond the realm of personal politics. Put differently: the royal figures to whom she dedicates so much of her time operate in an odd vacuum, one which lacks any semblance of social, political, or economic context. As a result, there were parts of this book which read so impressionistically that they begged the question whether those not trained as professional historians should be crafting these sorts of analyses.

Here are a few examples of Carter's writing:

"In reality, Holstein was an able, acerbic, workaholic bureaucrat, committed to his work in the Foreign Office, with a dry sense of humour and an omnivorous appetite for gossip and foreign affairs, fueled by an obsessive letter-writting habit." (139)

Wait, what?

Or, there's this:

"And around him Wilhelm was able to be both masterful and in charge, but also to shrug off the exhausting hyper-macho persona he felt obliged to adopt so much of the time...Inevitably, he had become enmeshed in the incessant intriguing endemic in the German government..." (141)

I want to close by saying that while Carter does make several smart points (especially about Wilhelm), and while I respect the amount of time and energy that goes into a book of this size, critics need to be far more honest in their assessment of this sort of writing, this type of study.

I can only imagine what Evans might have said...

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