Friday, November 12, 2010

For Want of a Nail

I have "For Want of a Nail" on my desk again.  I think I am finally ready to read it.

This alternate history textbook written by Professor Robert Sobel in 1971 posits that America lost the American Revolution.  Sobel outlines the history of North America from 1763 to 1971.  The book is a work of fiction, but is presented as an undergraduate history textbook, complete with over 800 footnotes to non-existent books and articles.  Detailed and well-written, this book has become a type of shrine for alternate history fans.

I took classes with Sobel at New College, Hofstra, in 1988 and 1990.  He wore a suit and tie everyday, and liked to stand at the window and comment on the tulips and green grass before a lecture.  In a small liberal arts college known for its liberalism, both in dress and politics, he was conservative, and considered a 'hard' professor.  Hard meant you must do the work, and hand it in on time, a rule not widely enforced in the rest of the college.  He was primarily a business historian, but his last book was a biography of Calvin Coolidge.  I remember him looking out the window in 1990 and saying that being older was great; one could plan for the future without impediments. He died shortly after he retired, in 1999.  Shortly after that, New College was all but eliminated by Hofstra, after key faculty that kept it going retired, and due to low enrollment.

For Want of a Nail was his only excursion into fiction.  It appears in keeping with the zeitgeist.  Ada was published in 1969.  Vonnegut was reaching his zenith.  And science fiction and various fantasy type genres were reaching wider audience.


  1. If you do decide to read the book, by all means let us know what you think. I have a particular interest in For Want of a Nail, since I wrote most of the Wikipedia article on it (yes, I actually counted all the footnotes).

  2. Thanks for the post. I do intend to read it this go around. As I said in the post above, I fond memories of Robert Sobel's classes. He was a prolific writer and an excellent professor. And now that I have published a book of history myself, I can more fully appreciate the imaginative feat of creating a work like For Want of a Nail.