Monday, November 29, 2010
Historiography without the data, For Want of a Nail Part II
I am two-thirds of the way through Robert Sobel's For Want of a Nail, his alternate history of North America if the rebels had lost the American Revolution.
Besides being simply an enjoyable read (yes, reading is pleasurable, especially the feeling of a book in one's hands) there is a fine lesson for the writer of history to be gleaned from this book.
The writing of history involves the marshaling of facts, figures, the citation of sources, but also involves a large modicum of creativity in arranging these materials. Without it, history becomes flat and uninspired.
What Sobel has done in this book is lay bare that process. This history is not a history, but a creative illusion. Sobel takes the apparatus of historical research, the form and function of it, and creates a beautiful and false edifice. The historical framework is there, and he presents it elegantly and masterfully. We get the feeling, when reading For Want of a Nail, that a knowledgeable guide is taking us on a journey. This is the hallmark of all great works of history. That the content is false makes little difference.
The lesson: good writing carries the day, no matter what the genre, but especially in a popular history. History is a story to be told. Why not tell it well?