Friday, January 14, 2011

Europe: What a Great Story

...and no, I ain't talkin' about The Final Countdown.

Europe: A History, by Norman Davies, has consumed much of my reading time lately, despite stiff competition from Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, which I am reading for the second time.

Davies tackles a huge subject - a panoramic history of Europe from the last Ice Age to the Cold War, and, unlike most European histories that focus on the Big EFG (England/France/Germany), this one ranges all the way from the Urals to Gibraltar.

The neatest thing about this book is the way it's structured. The text is interspersed with bracketed information [LIKE THIS], and each bracket leads to a sidebar that is nearby. This reminds me of nothing so much as a standard hyperlinked web document. It makes for great bathroom reading, because you can read the sidebars (which Davies calls "capsules") by themselves as short articles. Or, you can stop and read them as you go or just ignore them all together because they don't interrupt the flow of the narrative.

I haven't read this whole book. It's like 10 billion pages long (it's the physically heaviest book I've ever read) and I've only just finished the section on Ancient Greece. But I know I'll finish it. Not only is Davies just a great writer stylistically, he's also a compassionate and objective historian.

Davies spends a lengthy introduction explaining how pretty much everyone else does history wrong, and he's made me a big believer in his ideas. He decries academic over-specialization, which he believes has looked so hard at the details that it's lost the big picture. He is also politely firm against revisionist historical theories such as Egyptian pharaohs, up to an including Cleopatra, as being black. He's obviously a sensitive man, based on things he's written about minority races and whatnot. But he's also not falling into the current fashion of academia, which is to allow modern politics to cloud the facts.

Above all, this book is for a me a treasure trove of ideas for stories, but it's also simply a great (if somewhat monumental) read. Not only that, but I'm pretty sure you could use it as a doorstop for a bank vault.

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