By Christopher B. Daly
A couple of updates from the world of letters:
–My B.U. colleague Amy Sutherland has a Q+A with the estimable Tracy Kidder in the Boston Globe. A brief highlight:
BOOKS: Anything else you avoid?
KIDDER: Most biographies are too long. But I loved “King Leopold’s Ghost” by Adam Hochschild. I don’t want to read any more memoirs about dysfunctional families. I don’t think it’s a form that should be condemmed. It’s just there’s been a surfeit of it.
I certainly agree with his point about biographies: they have become so vast that they are approaching the point where they are both un-readable and un-writable. There are a number of biographies I’d like to read and a handful I’d like to write, but the prospect of either is daunting. Bring back the short biography!
–I found this review in today’s NYTimes irritating. What bothers me is the premise that Adam Begley brought to his reading of a new history of Venice by Thomas F. Madden, titled Sunken Treasure. The reviewer takes the author to task for writing a book of history that tackles a great subject, synthesizes a tremendous amount of material, and writes a readable version for intelligent general readers. Where’s the harm?
But if it’s new, it’s not innovative. Madden has written a conventional narrative history, sweeping in scope and calmly, blandly authoritative. Though he’s a professional historian who teaches at St. Louis University, he seems more proud of his storytelling than his scholarship.
That view is what drives the mania among academic historians for writing books with novel arguments on arcane subjects. Later in the review, Begley calls Madden a “breezy, cheerful, evenhanded” debunker of myths. Begley begrudgingly allows that the last general history of Venice was written a generation ago, and that book dropped the tale in 1797. Madden has tapped newer research, brought the story up to the present, and done so in an engaging way. Why is that not enough?