Saturday, October 30, 2010

a sad(ish) Gaps story

Warning: this is going to be a negative review, but in fairness to the author, it has nothing to do with his work on the book (I am sure this is a very good book, since other people much smarter and better read in this field than I am have said so). It's just a reflection of my hopes and expectations for the book. And, I guess, a manifestation of what the Gaps list helps us get out of our systems.

I bought God's War back in 2005 off of a starred Publishers Weekly review. Back then, $35 was a huge amount of money for me to spend on a book (heck, it still is, but I was a bona fide starving assistant back then), but I love to read about the Crusades and have always sought stuff out. The PW review assured me that God's War would replacing the current standard Crusades text (by one Runciman, which yes, I had read in college already).

I was disappointed from the beginning with Tyerman's tone, which was the traditional dry academic, bent on including as many details as possible but without including anything hard, like numbers (let's face it, what we really want to know is always how many people died horribly). I mean, this was hardly Tyler's fault; he is an academic, and wrote an academic text. I guess I was just hoping that someone would finally write a treatment of the Crusades that made the data and the themes easy to digest. Because I know there's a way. And it bothers me that no one ever wants to cover this large topic in a plainspoken and accessible way. I believe a lot of us modern souls could learn a lot from history--this history in particular--if only historians were more willing to distill their jargon and say something.

I'll stop with that line of thought now. I don't mean to open up a basket of snakes about academic integrity, the moral imperative of keeping a neutral tone to data, the sanctity of the white tower, the fact that any written history is already an interpretation, blah blah blah. I was just hoping, when I bought this book, that it would be what I hadn't found elsewhere before--a book about the Crusades that I could recommend to casual readers. It wasn't.

It had already sat on my shelf for almost four years when we embarked upon the Gaps project (now more than a year and a half ago). I put it on the list, because I thought maybe this would finally get me through it. In order to get through it, I marked it into sections. I would try to read about 75 pages a week, and it would take me only three months of Sundays to finish it and have done. I lasted for two weeks on that plan. Well, one and a half weeks. I was thrown off by the fact that nothing felt new or fresh--I was just rereading difficult-to-pick-through historianism with the same content I already knew backward and forward. Six months later, I plowed through another 50 pages, then six months after that, while I was briefly unemployed, I forced myself through another 400. Today, I made myself finish it, and forgave myself much skimming. I hope no one will fault me for crossing it off the list, despite rather light engagement over the last three hundred pages.

Anyway, now I'm done. The Gap is filled. Any writers out there in need of projects? I still vote for a short, accessible, general, thematic, and fun to read history of the Crusades.


Emily Cross said...

That's disapointing. I'm a semi-academic (i.e. phd student) so I totally get the importance of academic language that you meant BUT there's a difference between high-ranking academic journals and text and books to be read by the public. Many psychologists have written books (and made some nice bit of money too) by taking their academic notions and writing in more accessible style (i.e. Goleman and Emotional Intelligence books). Similarly, I think if Holland can write about the roman, persian and christian empire in a way I can read - it's a pity this hasn't been done for the crusades!

moonrat said...

YES!!!! don't you wish everyone knew more about the crusades?!? blarg.