Another Literary Transgression

August 31, 2009 at 12:00 am 2 comments

(This is second in a series of Literary Transgressions! These Transgressions features posts by me, KT, or one of our delightful readers in which we share an embarrassing literary admission with some commentary. If you’d like to join the madness and share your own Literary Transgression, please e-mail us at literarytransgressions@gmail.com.)

Clio, the muse of history

Clio, the muse of history

While I realize I spend a lot of my time on Literary Transgressions complaining about “fluffy” history books, I would now like to take a moment to indulge one of my literary transgressions and admit that I actually most often love “fluffy” history books. Yes, you heard it here first, my snobbery only extends into the academic realm and, personally, I actually like Alison Weir’s books. No, I would never use them or read them for school or any academic purpose, but that doesn’t stop me from reading them constantly in my spare time! (Nor, apparently, does it stop me from complaining about them in the blogosphere.)

This transgression is one which I am actually divided on. I really do enjoy reading the broad-strokes popular history books of authors like Weir, Nina Burleigh, and Russell Shorto. There is absolutely nothing better than curling up with a fluffy history book about a time period you know nothing about and becoming entirely encompassed in it. That is what these books are best at. They let you know what is going on broadly, they give you a feel for the time with little historic factoids (“you could still buy a goose in the streets of London in 1850!” or something similar), and they are, at base, thoroughly readable. But still I cringe a little. I can only assume this cringe is the Ghost of History Department Advisors Past (and, let’s face it, probably Future, too) inhabiting my body for a brief moment.

Happily for me, fluffy historians, and the cringe, I recently read a book that managed to both be fluffy and written by a woman I can honestly dub a fantastic historian. The Lost World of James Smithson by Heather Ewing combined everything I love about fluffy history with everything I love about (dare I call it?) “real” history to create a truly fantastic book. It is readable, it has factoids and, best of all, it has thorough and impressive research. In Weir’s books, I never get the impression she is uncovering anything new, just rephrasing everything we already know to make it more manageable. In Ewings’ Lost World, the absolutely mind-blowing new research is what makes the book. Ewing dug into repositories and records that haven’t been touched in hundreds of years and then resurfaced with newly-discovered history. It is mind-boggling to ponder the process that created this absolutely excellent book.

So three cheers for fluffy history and then another for books that manage to perfectly combine some good fluff with some even better research.

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Entry filed under: Non-fiction, Transgressions. Tags: , , .

Fairy Tale Friday: The Goose Girl From NYTimes: Where does a love of reading come from?

2 Comments Add your own

  • 1. KT  |  September 2, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    Excellent Transgression! English kids don’t really get the same distinction between ‘fluff’ and serious academia, I don’t think — the closest analogy would maybe be book reviews vs. scholarly criticism, but even reviews from reputable sources can be used to support arguments.

    Anyway, also! Since you are my historical expert, do you have a recommendation for a good, readable biography of Benjamin Franklin? I have one by Walter Issacson here but I’m not sure it’s the best one out there. Thoughts?

    Reply
  • 2. Corey  |  September 4, 2009 at 6:34 am

    Thank you! Indeed, it might be a uniquely history-department problem since most popular nonfiction is history or biography from what I’ve noticed.

    You know I’ve never studied Mr. Franklin?! I have no recommendations…I fail at being the resident historical expert. :(

    Reply

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