Been meaning to get to this for ages. I try to leaven all my fiction reading with some non-fiction. As my primary interest is history, I generally end up reading something about the past. I don’t care for dry academic studies (important, but I’m reading, not researching), so I’m interested in the books that are more for the general reader, but deeper than an introduction. So, here’s some of what I’ve read over the last couple months.

Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War by Robert K. Massie
This nice little doorstop is a good book, and a good read. Do note that the subtitle is much more accurate than the title. HMS Dreadnought was a remarkable new direction in capital ship design, and Massie does spend some time focused on it, but the book is about the political process that lead to Britain and Germany’s collision in WWI, rather than the arms race the politics engendered.

Most of all, it is a book about personalities. Whenever the history takes a step forward, Massie spends a loving amount of detail on reconstructing the personality of the new central figure diving into the words and works he left behind and his relationships with other people in the narrative.

A very good book. Quite readable, and well worth reading, but very dense in it’s information, don’t try to read it in a distracting environment. I plan to get his other books as soon as I can.

“A description of the next five years of Churchill’s life reads more like the plot of a ‘tuppenny’ Victorian novel than a true account of the adventures of a young British officer. Somehow, in this short span of time at the high-water mark of European colonialism, this young man managed to place himself under fire in four different wars in four widely separate corners of the earth.”

So it was appropriate that the next book I read was one of Winston Churchill’s books about his own adventures. The River War is a history of Egypt’s (under British leadership) campaign to win back the Sudan from the uprising seen in the movie Khartoum. Churchill himself was only present for the climatic campaign that culminated with the battle of Omdurman, and the four chapters where he is present have a much different tone than the rest of the book.

Considering that it is written about events where the author was an eager participant, and in an age before political correctness, it is entirely written from his, or at least, the British viewpoint and talks intelligently of the problems of supply and logistics, ever important in that harsh climate, as well as the military maneuvers. The next time someone wants to write of the archetypal massive evil hordes in an epic fantasy novel, it might be worth looking up Churchill first:

“It seemed to us, as we looked, that there might be 3,000 men behind a high dense zeriba of thorn bushes….
Suddenly the whole black line which seemed to be zeriba began to move. It was made of men, not bushes. Behind it other dense masses and lines of men appeared over the crest; and while we watched, amazed by the wonder of the sight, the whole slope became black with swarming savages. Four miles from end to end… this mighty army advanced—swiftly. The whole side of the hill seemed to move.”

Currently, I’m reading The Isles: A History by Norman Davies. Another massive book, it tells the story of the (as he points out, wrongly named) British isles from prehistory to the present day in a readable format. He is enamored of language and nomenclature.

While an overview at best, thanks to the scope, he spells out his commitment to spreading the knowledge of history to the common man (and therefore writing so as to be understood and engaging the attention of such) in the introduction, and does his best to uncover all those nasty tendencies that lead to poor assumptions.

“…One of these [observations] would refer to the widespread, unthinking, and unshakeable belief in the unbroken continuity of ‘our island history’. The belief is so strong that it crushes any sense of the need to change the names to match the changing reality. England is assumed to be fixed and eternal. Hence many historians do not hesitate to talk of ‘England’ in those centuries of the first millennium long before the creation either of an English state or nation. And they continue to talk of ‘England’ as a mistaken synonym for the United Kingdom long after England had been merged into a wider unified state.”