Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Threes

With all the books there are to be read in this world, hell, in this room, I should not think I would still find new books so much a distraction as I daily do. Working in a bookstore, there is an inevitability to this, but even if I didn't work where I do, I think I would seek them out, if only just to read the jacket copy, page through the photo inserts if any, read a bit of the introduction, or the first paragraph of the text, and want then to read more, even of what I probably wouldn't finish if I actually bought the book. Not all books have this power over me of course, but there are categories, subjects, even styles of presentation, that draw me like a moth to the flame, and would do if I worked on the docks, flew an airplane or performed in a kick-line at Radio City Music Hall. That I earn my living by books is no accident, but even if I didn't, I would need new books to be happy. It is better then that I work where I do. (Consider the accidents to which I would be prone if distracted by a book while loading freight, sitting in a cockpit blithely unaware of my destination passing below, or missing a step and ruining the choreography and line for the other girls in the big Christmas number.)

One such kind of book I have no business even thinking of borrowing, let alone buying, is that heavy single volume of history that would require weeks to read and the kind of sustained interest in the subject of which I am really no longer much capable. I am thinking just here of the new book by the great American historian, Gordon S. Wood, Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789 - 1815, a new volume in the Oxford History of the United States. Winner of of the Bancroft and the Pulitzer prizes for history, Wood is exactly the kind of historian, writing exactly the kind of thoughtful, and exciting narrative history to which I am most drawn. His earlier book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution, was perhaps the most persuasive sustained argument I've ever read for America, in Lincoln's famous words, as "a new nation;" not simply in rebellion against a distant and indifferent monarchy and government, but as the boldest experiment to that date in a wholly new kind of society: unapologetically commercial, capitalist, rationalist and enlightened, by the standard of the day, and not only willing, but eager to experiment with republican democracy on a scale previously untried in human history. Wood's interpretation of the Revolution challenged many of my assumptions about the character not only of the rebellion, but of the men who made it, and whetted my curiosity about a period in our history in which I had until then taken only the most cursory interest, assuming I knew all there was worth knowing from the rather shopworn history I'd been taught in school. Now Professor Wood has written an even bigger book about a period of which I know even less, and argued persuasively, at least in the introduction I read, that no period in our history deserves more consideration or has been given less. Damn. I can't quite imagine undertaking such a long book anytime soon. But then, I can't quite imagine walking past a stack of it every day between now and Christmas without wanting to own and read the thing.

I did not resist the urge this week to pick up a copy of another history, less consequential than the Wood, but more immediately appealing as something of a necessary (?) pendant to my reading of Dumas' Three Musketeers and it's sequels. From Da Capo, The Man Who Outshone the Sun King: A Life of Gleaming Opulence & Wretched Reversal in the Reign of Louis XIV, by Charles Drazin, tells the fascinating story of one of the ancillary heroes in that great and favorite series of historical novels. Nicolas Fouquet was a brilliant financier and minister to the King, who fell, as the title of Drazen's book suggests, through no fault but superior taste, enviable personal wealth, and the bad luck to call attention to both while loyally serving one of the greatest, most self-indulgent and paranoid cockscombs in European history. Reading in Drazen's good book, I've found Dumas yet again to be a better historian than he is usually given credit for being, and if the historical record does not in this instance as in many others entirely support the romance Dumas made from Fouquet's life, the reality came damned close to being just as interesting.

Charles Drazin's book is exactly the kind of thing I try not to notice until, inevitably, it ends up on a Bargain Books table, but that I seem unable always to avoid altogether when new. Likewise another new title in French history, this of a different period and kind entirely, but no less attractive to me for that. From Farrar, Straus and Giroux, Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France's Belle Époque, by Kate Cambor, promises an equally fascinating tale, or rather three such, in her three protagonists, all children of privilege and famous and accomplished families: Léon Daudet was the son of novelist Alphonse Daudet, Jeanne Hugo the granddaughter of Victor Hugo, and Jean-Baptiste Charcot the son of neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot. Each of these three would see the world of their fathers explode, and each would respond to the new times in unanticipated ways, and in the case of Léon Daudet, with reversion to a horrifying, reactionary antisemitism that would seem to have betrayed all the optimism of the previous generation's humanism. I know little or nothing about any of this later generation, so Cambor's book tempts me strongly with the excitement of the unknown, even as the lure of so familiar a name as Hugo's caught my eye. Damn. Again.

These things do seem to come in threes, which is a problem not only insofar as I need to be reading other things just now, but because the cubby under my desk where I squirrel such books away before I read and or buy them is already crowded, still, with some of the enthusiasms of just a month ago.

Oh for a long life, and the hours to read all I want to.

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