Hopefully this is the right place to ask as there were not many other threads in relation to this.
I really like history. I am going to read some non-fiction books (that can be interesting), but I have a feeling that Historical fictionbooks are more fun and gripping? More of a 'cant put it down' book collection as opposed to non-fiction (although I am most likely wrong). There are so many historical fiction books out there that look great (lots of reviews), such as 'Wars of the Roses' by Conn Iggulden, ones by Bernard Cornwell (more medieval). How does one find the great books to read, that are set in different eras? I have no knowledge of the good ones, so is there a list I can be recommended to read as I am new to this genre.
In Prisoners Of Geography, Tim Marshall sets out to explain world politics in terms of geopolitics – that is, that nations are almost compelled by the physical attributes of their landscape to behave in certain ways. Thus, we are presented with a Russia that will always want to have a buffer of conquered states to the west where flat plains leave it vulnerable; South America will always be poor because the landscape lacks natural harbours and navigable rivers; and the interconnected rivers but high mountain ranges made it inevitable that Europe would become a trading zone divided by many languages.
This all sounds plausible, but does it make a book? Whilst some of the arguments are compelling, it is all presented through the “Lens of Now”. By that, I mean taking the current reality, looking for how geography might have contributed, and then presenting the current state of affairs as an inevitability caused by geography. So, by way of example, China is presented as a successful nation because the Han culture and Mandarin language have achieved dominance in a flat area with natural boundaries and navigable rivers, but development is focused on the coastal region because of ease of transport. But in a parallel universe, where the Han race and Mandarin language had not come to dominate the others, would Tim Marshall have been arguing that an area as vast and flat as China could never be united and enjoy stable governance, always being at the mercy of warlords constantly invading one another’s territory? And thirty years ago when China was not successful, it still had the same geography, didn’t it?
Other examples in the book – the Middle East in particular – don’t seem to be much about geopolitics at all. That seems to be more a problem of cultures and religions jostling for supremacy. There are issues of arbitrarily creating nation states based on lines on a map, but the narrative seems more to be a statement of who currently holds what territory rather than any convincing explanation of how geopolitics got us there. There’s a feeling that even without the lines on the map, there would still be warring factions. And much seems to have been simplified: there is scarcely a mention, for example, of the Maronite Christians, how they came to be in the Levant area (i.e. driven out of Armenia by the Turks) and how the Turks had previously been driven out of Central Asia. By the same token, there’s not much thought about current population movements in the area and how they might impact on the future.
Speaking of the future, there is some discussion of “where to from here”. We consider whether there will ever be a resolution of the Korean issue (answer – not any time soon); and how global warming might open up trade routes through the Arctic. There are occasional references to the politics of water supply. But unlike the definitive statements about how we got here, geography doesn’t seem to give up the future so easily. It all starts to get a bit vague.
Overall there is some interesting material in this book – although after ten chapters it can start to feel a bit samey. Some people have criticized it for over-simplifying things but, in a way, that’s exactly what Tim Marshall set out to do. He wanted to increase our understanding of geopolitics in a very broad sense without having to read the extremely detailed material from which the theories derive. My real beef is not the simplification, it is the weight given to geopolitics in what is a more nuanced world: key decisions might have gone the other way; a different leader might have come to power; the war might have lasted another ten years; Russia might never have sold Alaska, etc. There are lots of what ifs – and I’m not sure this book gives sufficient recognition to those, or to the fact that we are looking at just one point in time facing a vast and unknowable future.
Carey, John. The Unexpected Professor
I first encountered John Carey through his book about Charles Dickens, The Violent Effigy, which I had read several years ago, so was soon browsing through this paperback in Pershore High Street last week. As I flipped through the book, the familiar names of TS Eliot, Charles Dickens, Helen Gardner and Christopher Ricks alerted me to the English literature I knew and loved. Here was an authority, a man respected for his criticism who had actually met and even shaken the hand of people who were to me ‘legends.’ I couldn’t put the book down and - there was no choice - I had to buy it. I found that Carey was born in Barnes, not so far from Putney where I used to live and that he had read and commented upon almost every writer I had ever read. Moreover he was an Oxford man, winner of scholarships, chairs and many awards including being a Booker judge. I too in my humble capacity had to some extent followed unknowingly in his path, attending a post-war grammar school and having my education interrupted by National Service and eventually taking up employment in teaching at an American University.
I was delighted to find that this learned man was so approachable, so easy to read, and that he was very far from being a stuffy intellectual, a quibbler or one lost in the clouds of academic pretense. Carey calls a spade a spade, has forthright and often controversial opinions, is neither Leavisite nor Marxist and obviously enjoys literature for its own sake. I felt that he understood not only the works in themself but the men behind them. Thus on Swift he says, ‘the fury he felt about how humans behave went far beyond local political issues.’ The Yahoos’ behaviour, so distasteful and ‘disgraceful’ as it seems to us underpins the human predicament, of being at base an animal, but one with ludicrous aspirations for immortality.
Carey is a socialist but not a starry-eyed visionary who believes that public education is not something that should be donated by right to anyone who feels like giving it a go. One has to earn the right to attend the higher universities, or rather, one should be allowed to compete for places based on one’s ability, not on one’s class background, and cetainly not on one’s ability to pay. Unsurprisingly one of his three top twentieth century novelists is George Orwell, the one whom he quotes as saying ‘the truth is that in a prosperous country left-wing politics are largely make-believe.’
It is appropriate that one of Carey’s most popular books is entitled Pure Pleasure, and his justification for reading and writing literature is simply that it ‘functions by making us imagine what it would be like to be someone else.’ Carey, who has read so widely and commented so wisely, deserves a knighthood for services to literature, although I’m pretty sure that, like Tony Benn, he’d never even consider accepting it.