Thursday, 9 July 2009

A Short History

I am all for short books. Most books published these days are at least a third too long - probably more in the case of fiction, considering how tedious a Radio 4 Book At Bedtime can be even after it's been filleted to a mere sixth of its original length. And it isn't only novelists who write at such punishing length. Historians, too - perhaps with more justification - incline overwhelmingly towards the 'damned thick, square book'. But there are exceptions - and glorious among them is Norman Stone, whose World War One: A Short History I am reading, on the urgent recommendation of The Yard. Coming in at a bare 190 pages of text, it's a joy to read - pithy, witty, stylish, and with a sharp eye for the arresting detail or startling fact. Did you know, for example, that 1916 was the only year ever in which British exports have exceeded imports? Or that the first shots of the Anglo-German war were fired in Sydney Harbour? Or that, when Romania was dragged into the war, one of the first orders issued to its officers was to refrain from wearing eye shadow? Stone covers the vast historical terrain nimbly, condensing masses of tedious business into one well-turned sentence: 'In these circumstances, the eastern war remained one of movement, though the movement itself was generally meaningless'. Enough said. I have just reached a brilliant account of what was 'probably, and with considerable competition, the worst-managed battle of the entire war' - an action near Lake Narotch on the Russian front, of which I must confess I had never heard before. The Russians suffered casualties of 100,000 for no gain at all - and no wonder. 'General Kuropatkin thought up a wheeze by which, in the middle of the night, searchlights would suddenly be switched on, supposedly to dazzle the Germans. It had not occurred to him that the attackers would be silhouetted and be easy targets. He was dismissed. However, the Tsar, to spare his feelings, did not want him to think that he had been sacked for being too old; he was kindly told that he had just been incompetent, and was replaced by someone even older.' Wonderful stuff - there should be more short, sharp histories as good as this; there would surely be a market.


  1. I'd be up for more condensed histories - wading through all those Beevor books is a real drain - of course the level of minutae is staggering, but sometimes all those empathetic personal stories overwhelm and I end up skipping pages to find the more macro 'long view' sections.

    This is one of the things amongst many that proves how superficial I am

  2. I enjoyed Andrew Roberts's Waterloo because it was brief and clear. I quite like long novels but nonfiction should really be no longer than, say, a blogpost.

  3. perhaps we could persuade Anthony Beevor to 'tweet' his next tome in 140 characters or less?

  4. Great tip, thanks. Scored a copy earlier on. The chance of a new beginning after managing, yet again, only about 25 pages of Gilead yesterday before complete narcolepsy set in. I should have the courage of my convictions and get rid of it. Besides, it's hard not to admire Norman Stone's boldness which, as he says in his introduction, gives him a very different perspective on the story, "a room with a view over the entire Bosphorus".

    Going for the epic requires a lifetime's dedication and the talent for it. Genius more likely, since one has to develop one's own epic style too. Hardly anyone has ever been able to do it. One of the delusions of our age is that this isn't so, I guess. "Fat books sell" as publishers like to say, but then they often help along the epic impression with larger type and thicker paper.

  5. Norman Stone is a phenomenon. I just wish he had written more books, short or long. Even a collection of his journalism would be nice.

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