Ok, so this week’s book review is a little different to my previous efforts. Primarily because it’s more of an opinion piece than a book review (though is there really a difference?) I started out hoping to write about one of a couple of fascinating looking works that I recently got my hands on but I encountered an issue with them……to put it simply, they bored me. How is that possible for a history nerd I hear you ask? Simple….the authors took what should have been exhilarating historical narratives, and they applied the tedious style so familiar to those of us who have studied history academically.
Just a quick rant…..hey it’s my blog…..I’ll cry if I want to. Dear historical writers. You may not realise this, but it is actually possible to write about history in a way that is accurate, fact based AND entertaining. Why do some of you have to take a subject as fascinating as the Spanish conquest of Latin America, or the history of Australia, and reduce it to what resembles a tedious list of facts and figures written in an incredibly mundane academic fashion? What have you got against an engaging and informative narrative? Why do you insist on taking all the fun out of history? My own PhD is a prime example, its subject matter being Irishmen joining foreign armies in a quest for adventure. Exciting stuff right? Wrong. Because it’s written in an academic fashion, it makes me (and anyone else who attempts to read it) want to gouge my eyes out after the first couple of pages.
I do however understand why things are written in this fashion in universities or academic journals……they are usually for colleagues in the field or other individuals who are extremely familiar with the subject matter and its historiographical context. My issue is with historical works written for consumption by those without a background in academic history. The banal and humdrum style often employed in these books just discourages the reader in my opinion, and means that a large cohort of people are not exposed to important historical information. I’m not saying that these works are not well written, just that their style is off putting and really difficult to remain engaged with. And while I realise that ‘popular history’ is looked down upon in certain (usually academic) circles, nevertheless it is infinitely more successful in enlightening the general public with regards to history. Having said that, I’ll try to give these works another go……I just wish they were easier to read. God forbid someone may get excited about history!!
So let’s start with The Penguin History of Latin America (2009), written by Edwin Williamson. The author is an academic, formerly of Oxford University, and this is immediately apparent in the dry and dreary style. Williamson turns what should have been a fascinating tale of conquistadors, hidden treasure, war, adventure, native resistance and the development of an entire continent into a rather boring account, with sections such as ‘patterns of settlement’ and ‘development and nationhood in historical perspective’. It’s not a good sign of a work if you have to read and re-read the same lines over and over, or if your mind wanders during the reading. Here’s a wonderful example of Williamson’s prose – ‘the potency of this invigorated ideology of royal absolutism lay in the fact that the Church legitimised the power of the Crown by resolving the historic tension between the absolutist and contractual views of royal authority’…..I’m sorry, what? Do you mean church and state worked together for their mutual benefit? Then just say that. Simplicity does not have to be synonymous with that eternal bugbear of academia – ‘dumbing down’.
How about this beauty – ‘the only coherent political ideology available to them was liberalism, but democratic values such as liberty and equality – not to mention fraternity – tended to undermine state authority in regionally dispersed societies which were still seigneurial, hierarchical, racially divided and often based on slavery’. Absolutely gripping stuff Edwin….I’m on the edge of my seat. Of course this work is well written and researched, is likely to be invaluable for anyone writing a thesis on Latin America, and I certainly don’t doubt the authority and intelligence of Edwin Williamson on this topic. But the narrative is just so dispassionate and dry. It’s one of those works that you make sure to list in your bibliography but never actually read. What’s the point in putting all of this information out there if it’s inaccessible or unattractive to many? I have a PhD in history, and I love the subject, but I can’t get through this.
Time to move onto my second book/rant. Australia both now and in the past intrigues me, and I love to read about it, whilst picturing the First Fleet sailing into what would become Sydney Harbour in 1788 and how that area changed over the years (yeah we know Florry……we read your blog). It’s a remote and beautiful land far from where we would consider the centre of the universe, but I think it’s Australia’s very isolation that makes it so interesting. Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land (2005) promises the reader ‘the most comprehensive one-volume history of this endlessly fascinating nation’, which is ‘original, provocative and entertaining’. On its release, The Guardian‘s Peter Porter described it as ‘nearly 600 pages stocked with facts and statistics’. Comprehensive, yes…..entertaining, not so much.
To be fair however, Great Southern Land is much more accessible and readable than Williamson’s aforementioned work, perhaps due in part to the fact that Welsh worked primarily in finance rather than academia. The narrative is more flowing and readable, there is less evidence of convoluted sentence constructs, and yet it still lacks what football pundits love to call passion……the narrative is again very clinical and sterile. As in the case of Latin America, this should be a tale of wonder……aboriginal peoples, unusual animals, the outback, bushmen, burgeoning cities, convicts becoming citizens, Crocodile Dundee. The man who founded Melbourne was called Batman for Christ’s sake!! This stuff practically writes itself!! How does a writer manage to make a tale such as this mundane.
As I’ve said, I will definitely give both books another go, particularly Great Southern Land. Both are well written in an academic style, extremely informative, and superbly researched. I just wish I could feel more of a love for the subject matter coming through from the respective authors. It’s almost as if they’re afraid to be emotionally engaged with the subject matter, in case it somehow takes from the veracity and authenticity. But it’s ok to be excited about reading history……that’s why all us history nerds fell in love with the topic after all…..and shouldn’t making it popular be the ultimate aim of all those who are fascinated by this topic??
2 thoughts on “The Penguin History of Latin America/Great Southern Land/aka Taking All The Fun Out Of History”
I don’t know how you have the patience to read those academic tedious books.
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The history told by the English spoken propaganda its extremely wrong, fake and racist. When we will start to hear about the millions of white slaves in America and mostly in Australia. Not counting with the hate propaganda against Catholics and not one single word against Luther atrocities or Calvinists racism, What about the counter armada? I hope things could change, because the rest of the world has changed!