Thursday, October 12, 2006
Books! Big, Fat PRUSSIAN books!
As some of the more loyal Stevereads advocates among you may know, I read very fast, and my speed is only increased by the fact that, unlike the rest of you, when I read I do so with very nearly complete concentration - no fidgeting, no clock-watching, no crotch-scratching (well ... OK, a little ...).
As a result, I burn through books. And though some of the more beleaguered among you might not believe it, this is a mixed blessing. Yes, I get to cover a lot more ground - unlike all of my reading friends, I don't feel overwhelmed by the on-surging tide of new books (barely ... I just barely don't feel overwhelmed) - which is, I find, a tremendous boost the morale: it removes the faint penumbra of DEFEAT that accompanies the reading of so many people I know, the sense that they're only chipping away at a small vein of what's being written.
(I'm not really chipping away either - 200,000 new titles every year in the U.S., close to 400,000 in the UK every year; more than half the US number are increasingly more remedial college textbooks, and a good portion of the rest are Bibles and biblical addenda ... but that still leaves about 20,000 titles annually; lop off say 15,000 for the attrition predictable with 'men's adventure,' 'chick lit,' 'Dummies' books, and all but a handful of kids' books, and that STILL leaves you with 5,000 new and potentially worthy books published every year - but I come a little closer than most)
The upshot of all this, you wonder? Well, the upshot that concerns us today is a tangent: I love big fat books! I read very fast and sleep very little, which means it's very difficult for me to experience the wonderful sensation of 'curling up' with a book - I go through them too fast. Only big fat books (preferrably heavily annotated history and biography) afford me that wonderful feeling of LIVING with a book for a stretch of time.
And I just had that wonderful feeling with the big fat book under discussion today!
The book is Christopher Clark's new history of Prussia, Iron Kingdom, and it's really good. It's dense, serious history, a long, even-handed look at the 350-year history of the country that was completely dismantled at the end of the Second World War.
I'm aware that many of you won't have heard of Prussia (except perhaps as a place referred to by Mr. Burns on 'The Simpsons'), but that awareness can't deter me in my pursuit of really good big fat books to read.
You can take my word for it that Prussia as a country had a rich and colorful history, in spite of its summary disappearance (the Allies viewed it as the really 'evil' part of all the 'evil German' things that had happened up 'til that point in the 20th Century)(when we all know that's not exactly right...).
Clark's lively, readable prose captures that history perfectly, without sentiment or condescension (as he himself writes, either would have been inexcusable, since he himself is an Australian national writing at the beginning of the 21st century). His enormous critical apparatus at the back of the book make it clear how gruesomely tedious he could have made this book, if he hadn't been vigilant and narratively gifted.
There are natural highlights to his long story - two individuals, in fact, who'd be guaranteed to steal the show on any stage you put them: Bismarck and Frederick the Great.
Clark's portrait of Bismarck is interestingly more sympathetic than AJP Taylor's or Edward Crankshaw's. The old walrus still comes off as a semi-hysterical wheedling control freak with the seemingly effortless ability to read the minds of everyone around him. But there's a wide variety of more human attributes (good and bad) that Clark weaves in, and it works. Unlike any other book I've read about the man, this one made me wonder what it would have been like to work with him.
And as sure-handed as Clark's depiction of Bismarck is, it's overshadowed by the chunk of his book that's overrun by Frederick the Great.
Warrior, poet, historian, musician, and endless source of great quotes, Frederick the Great (Clark shies away from the honorific, but that's just him being a sissy - history, in its own inscrutable way, awards its 'great's as it sees fit, and they deserve to stick) would have stood apart in a national history three times as long and three times as populated.
Clark seems to realize that in the length and breadth of his book he's not going to have any more fun than when he's sharing pages with Frederick, and it's those pages that are the book's best, lively and funny and lightning-fast.
Reading that part of the book, I couldn't help but remember Robert Asprey's truly magnificent biography, Frederick the Great, the Magnificent Enigma - I can't praise the book enough and whole-heartedly recommend it. Of course it's out of print, but as usual, I'd be happy to find a copy for any of you who want one.
But then, none of you WILL want one, will you? A 700-page biography of Frederick the Great? A 750-page history of Prussia? Hell, it's not likely any of you read this 700-word entry ABOUT those things.
Still, I'm not complaining. It's lonelier at the deep end of the pool, but it's more exhilerating and besides - I don't spend all my time there.
So: a very good, very long history of Prussia gets two thumbs up! Tune in tomorrow for more details!