Thursday, January 12, 2006

I wanna read some history

I know lots of people who don't read history books. Maybe they remember dry history from high school or their college history books were those dreadfully academic histories that seem to obfuscate on purpose. It's too bad because there are so many great history books out there. Rubicon, which covers the end of the Roman Republic, is one. Jan Morris's Pax Britannia trilogy is another. They share a few common characteristics. The authors manage to balance a big picture view along with personalities. Too much of modern history concerns itself with social forces and movements and loses the individual. While the effect of any given individual on history is debatable, using single person's stories to illustrate a period is far more engaging than providing lists of figures. They also use simple language in a clear manner. This is no easy task especially when the author is dealing with a tough subject, but when they do it, you are all the more likely to finish the book. They are also non-polemical which means they will not turn off those whose views do not closely match their own.

I'm reading another book that shares these qualities, Kenneth Pollack's Persian Puzzle. His subject is Iranian-American relations. Given the alien (to Westerners) nature of Iranian society, Pollack could easily get lost in explanation after explanation. Fortunately, he is an excellent stylist. His prose is clear, it moves at an engaging pace and it is relevant to today's political situation. Given the ongoing nuclear question, I really wanted to be smarter about Iran and this was a great choice.

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