Monday, September 28, 2009

Story-telling in history

(We'll get to history soon, but not immediately.) I've had interesting reading experiences lately. I rarely read novels any more (lack of time), but during an always-dangerous trip to the library recently I picked up two of the Dune novels written by Frank Herbert's son Brian and Kevin J. Anderson. I loved Dune, though not so much some of Herbert's sequels (in some sense, it was a novel that should not have had any sequel).

One of the post-Frank sequels was The Butlerian Jihad. What a great setting for a novel, I thought, the time when the crusade against "thinking machines" led to a galaxy without computers even as good as those we have today. Yet after 80 pages I had to give up, something I very rarely do with a novel. The story was unimaginative, lifeless, drab, just remarkably mediocre. I thought, "maybe Brian just isn't a novelist, but Anderson should do better", since he has lots of experience writing novels including juveniles and even Star Wars novels. But there was just nothing there.

So I switched to a history book, Persian Fire: The First World Empire and the Battle for the West by Tom Holland. This tells the story of the Persian Empire and (beginning about halfway through) its attacks on Greece. And remarkably enough, this was a much better story, much better told, than Butlerian Jihad, even though I knew the overall story pretty well. Holland is squarely in the "heroic Greek resistance to the East" faction even as he sympathizes with and compliments the Persians for their achievements. Holland is not a scholar, but this appears to be a very scholarly work. Yet he tells a great story with scrupulous accuracy. (For example, many do not know that more Thebans and Thespians than Spartans died on the last day at Thermopylae. And the story of the ultimately suicidal run by a Greek to announce the victory at Marathon is just that, a story, though the entire Athenian army got back to Athens remarkably quickly to protect it against possible Persian fleet action.)

Next I read Jared Diamond's The Third Chimpanzee. Diamond is well-known for his fascinating Guns, Germs and Steel, which attempts to scientifically answer the question of why civilization arose in the Middle East and later in other places, and why Europeans came to dominate the world. Third Chimpanzee is an earlier book that asks how humans have arisen from chimpanzees, and how humans are similar, and different, from other animals. (I often wonder how someone who rejects the idea of evolution can read such a book; such people must ignore a great deal of writing by scientists, I suppose.) Diamond is not as intent on telling a story as the author of Persian Fire, but he is extraordinarily clear and readable, taking you along with him on a journey of discovery and "ratiocination" (my word) while mixing in his own fascinating experiences in New Guinea and the South Pacific. And part of the book is the predecessor of Guns Germs and Steel, if you're not inclined to read both books.

Somewhere in there I started John Julius Norwich's The Middle Sea, a history of the Mediterranean. I enjoyed reading his history of Byzantium and history of Venice. Norwich, too, is a story-teller as well as historian (and does not claim to be a scholar), but this time there were too many factual errors (or perhaps cut corners) and I set it aside in favor of Diamond. I'll try again sometime.


Unknown said...

"I often wonder how someone who rejects the idea of evolution can read such a book; such people must ignore a great deal of writing by scientists, I suppose"

Maybe because there are enough scientists, both atheists and non-atheists, who have written good articles pointing the big problems of Darwinian evolution based on scientific study for those willing to take an honest look at the details. It's a great misconception to think that all scientists accept evolution.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Yet a great many books, including Diamond's, are founded on an acceptance of evolution. The question remains: if someone does not accept evolution as the major mechanism in biological change, then what could that person make of a book that does? Does it not become unintelligible? What replaces evolution as a way to organize or think about biological change? Or is there no change? ("Creationism" is A-number-one delusional crap, less sensible than a belief in magic. (I am agnostic, not atheist.))

Russ Williams said...

"pointing the big problems of Darwinian evolution" is not the same as disputing that evolution occurs. EVERY science advances and becomes more refined as earlier models are updated or replaced. Of course Darwin's description of evolution (from the 19th century!) is not the final story on evolution - if you think that this somehow proves that evolution itself is a flawed concept shows either intentional willingness to dishonestly misrepresent how science works, or complete ignorance of how science works.

You might as well claim that because Einstein and other scientists pointed out flaws in Newtonian physics, this shows that physics should be rejected, and that gravity, light, etc can only be explained by appeal to religion, or that gravity and light don't really exist.

Lewis Pulsipher said...

Don't think I ever said "Darwinian evolution". Of course we have a lot more data than Darwin did, and I suppose he himself would have somewhat different ideas about evolution if he lived today.