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Thursday, December 26, 2013

History books of the year – review

Story of the Jews Simon Schama: 'learning, wisdom and humanity'. Photograph: Tim Kirby/ BBC/ Oxford Film and Television

Alfred Hitchcock defined drama as life with the boring bits left out. These days publishers are trying to produce history books with the boring bits left out. The public still wants to read history, goes the thinking, but no longer has the time or stamina to wade through doorstops – huge books on big subjects that take weeks to digest. But reduce it to serviceable chunks – single out a year, a moment, or an individual – and they'll go for it.

It's easy to be snobby about this: the American historian Douglas Brinkley has dismissed One Summer: America 1927 (Doubleday), Bill Bryson's bestselling romp through the year that Lindbergh flew the Atlantic and Sacco and Vanzetti were finally executed as "remedial pseudo-history", composed of "stray anecdotes", "cliches and hokey summations", even while saying "America needs more accessible, easy-to-read history". I don't think Bryson and Messrs Doubleday will be missing sleep over that.

Actually, the publishers are right: the market has changed. The difficulty is that books produced to a formula aren't necessarily easier to write than other kinds; and they don't always work. In 100 Days to Victory: How the Great War Was Fought and Won (Hodder), Saul David reconfigured a familiar narrative into 100 beautifully sharp snapshots and made a huge subject accessible to a broad readership within a reasonable compass; but the exercise left an unsatisfied feeling – a taster menu, not a proper meal.

Two recent books on the Holocaust were also written to a formula. The detective story approach worked well in Thomas Harding's Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz (Heinemann) but in Hitler's Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields (Chatto) the needs of narrative forced Wendy Lower to tell an important story hastily and through a few individuals. It would have worked better at greater length.

These things are subjective, of course. As a general reader I'm quite happy to let others guide me through the labyrinth. And good writers develop their own formulae. Graham Robb's preferred method of travel is the bicycle and 15,000 miles in the saddle lie behind The Ancient Paths: Discovering the Lost Map of Celtic Europe (Picador), an extraordinary book that uses digital mapping and modern software to revive the old thesis about ley lines and straight tracks in pre-Roman Gaul and Britain – Asterix as road engineer. The sources on the period are so limited that it is hard to know whether Robb's speculations about the druids are revolutionary or crackpot. The Romans, by contrast, left a heavier footprint, even in benighted Britannia, and in Under a Different Sky: Journeys in Roman Britain (Cape) Charlotte Higgins set out in a camper van to explore and reflect on the remains – an elegant addition to a long antiquarian tradition.

In Red Fortress: The Secret Heart of Russia's History (Allen Lane) Catherine Merridale approached a huge subject via a single building, the Kremlin, that gloomy tyrants' lair in the centre of Moscow. Conspiracy and claustrophobia under the onion domes is not normally my thing – I loathe Eisenstein's Ivan the Terrible – but here the sharp intelligence and atmospheric prose kept me absorbed.

The truth is, though, that our best historians, being touched with madness, transcend publishers' formulas and assume that readers will happily spend weeks sharing their obsessions. This year several of the big beasts of the jungle were strutting their stuff.

Max Hastings easily saw off his rivals in the battle for the first world war centenary market, which took place a year ahead of schedule. His Catastrophe: Europe Goes to War 1914 (HarperCollins) was old-fashioned military history, shamefully readable and spiced up with jibes at the defence policy of Blair and Brown. There were more insights into current debacles in William Dalrymple's Return of a King: The Battle for Afghanistan (Bloomsbury), another book unafraid to retell an old story with enormous gusto, but greatly enhanced by Dalrymple's mastery of Afghan sources and his passion for the subject.

I haven't always been Simon Schama's greatest fan: he can be glib and self-satisfied. But The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE (Bodley Head) found him at his best. Perhaps because he was on home territory, the mannerisms were under control and the extraordinary breadth of Schama's learning, wisdom and humanity was allowed to shine through.

Rana Mitter's China's War With Japan, 1937-1945: The Struggle for Survival (Allen Lane), a book that has long cried out to be written, provides Anglo-Saxon readers with an authoritative account of one of the cornerstones of the second world war. But why should we welcome Richard Overy's The Bombing War: Europe 1939-45 (Allen Lane), a veritable doorstop of a book, when there is already a vast library on the subject? Because this topic has reached the point where it needs to be pulled together and Overy, by combining Herculean archival work with lucid writing, has done just that. If not the last word on the subject, the last for while. David Caute's Isaac & Isaiah: The Covert Punishment of a Cold War Heretic (Yale) used a minor spat between two refugee Jewish intellectuals, Isaac Deutscher and Isaiah Berlin, as the pretext for a fascinating tour of the cultural battleground of the cold war.

Not many laughs here. So, for my lighter nominations I'll go for O My America! Second Acts in a New World (Jonathan Cape), Sara Wheeler's entertaining account of women who left these shores for the United States in the 19th century, and The Author's XI: A Season of English Cricket from Hackney to Hambledon (Bloomsbury), a delightful homage to the days when the likes of PG Wodehouse, Arthur Conan Doyle and JM Barrie put willow on leather. It'll make the perfect antidote to grim news from Australia.

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