Barbara Tuchman’s Practicing History


I started out loving Barbara Tuchman’s book of essays. The first eight essays, on the craft of writing history, sent me over the moon. My ardor went down just a degree or two in the next section, which might be described as history in small chunks. Although the final section, in which she comments about (1960-1970) current affairs, yields nuggets, I found myself in disagreement with Tuchman and disengaged with her writing. It seems to me the further away the period about which she writes, e.g. Medieval times, the Great War, the more I like her.  That said, I would have no qualms recommending this book to an aspiring writer or an avid student of history.

Tuchman returns often to the theme of selection, the art of leaving things out.

The historian is continually being beguiled down fascinating byways and sidetracks. But the art of writing—the test of the artist—is to resist the beguilement and cleave to the subject. 18

Happily, Tuchman utilizes some great stories that were cut from her books to illustrate this point. Striking discoveries, fascinating though they be, must fit into the structure and scope of the book to be useful.  These behind-the-scene revelations reminded me of watching a DVD with the director’s commentary. Consequently, this book is more valuable to one who has read many of Tuchman’s books.

Tucked in this collection is a love song to libraries.

To a historian libraries are food, shelter, and even muse. 76

The breadth of Barbara Tuchman’s experience—even expertise—leaves me breathless: China, Japan, Spain, Israel, Turkey, Europe, Medieval times, late 19th century, WWI, Vietnam. Those interested in Israel will appreciate two essays on the young/ancient nation written in 1967.

One of my favorite essays was her portrait of her grandfather, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., an advocate of assimilation, a Jew opposed to Zionism. (His Zion was America; he wanted to be a Jew in America.) After donating time and money to Woodrow Wilson’s election, he was awarded, not a Cabinet position, but a minor ambassodorship to Turkey, a post set aside for Jews. With the advent of the Great War, Morgenthau, in his position in Constantinople, was able to give life-giving aid to Jews in Palestine, Armenian refugees, and later to Greeks.

Here is a sampling of Barbara Tuchman:

…the reader is the essential other half of the writer. 81

…concerning all cafeterias in American government basements the only polite comment is silence. 79

With the appearance of the tape-recorder, a monster with the appetite of a tapeworm, we now have a new problem of what I call artificial survival. 72

There are gems of quotations, as when Dean Acheson, asked why a meeting of senior advisers lasted so long, replied, “We are all old and we are all eloquent.” 220


Reading through an Author’s Canon



Do you set goals to read the complete oeuvre of an author? Do you get a little buzz inside your cheek when you read “she’s read all of [fill in author’s name]?

I do.

And I tell myself little fictions about what I’m going to do.

I’m thinking aloud, trying to articulate a reading plan for the year to come. The last plan I made, for 2010, was to read around the world. I read 18 of the 71 titles listed. And reviewing the list makes me want to renew that quest. But when I listed the books read in 2011, I was disappointed in the absence of authors dear to my heart. So, without a formal reading challenge I’m planning to be more intentional with my reading.

In my last post I asked why do you read?  Thank you for your answers, which evoked many happy sighs. Thank you!

My next question is how do you decide what to read next? In my case, it often depends on which bookshelf I browse. The entry-way shelf has an eclectic collection of books just received. Since they are new to me they are the equivalent of shiny objects. The hall shelf holds favorite authors, the Penguin collection, and books which look pretty on the shelf. The guest room shelf is an unorganized hodge-podge of books that no longer fit on the entry-way shelf. The living room bookshelf has the heavy hitters: history, biography, poetry.

I love all the reading challenges that blow by me this time of the year: Ireland, L.M. Montgomery, WWI, North Africa. Part of me wants to join a half a dozen. But I hold back.

I’d love to hear how you decide which book you’ll pick up to read.

And one more question: who are the authors whose entire works you would like to read?

Key phrase: would like to. If you had time to read, if you had access to every book, if, if, if…who would it be?

I made the Wordle above just playing with this idea. I look at it five minutes later and realize that the one author I’ve been thinking about the most in this context—David McCullough—is absent. There is a category of authors—Mark Helprin comes to mind—that I’m not convinced that I will want to read everything. And the thought of actually reading through and finishing Tolkien’s Silmarillion makes me want to shout “I take it back!”

I’ve been reading Barbara Tuchman’s book of essays, Practicing History; she also needs to be added to the list. Reading her is the equivalent of holding Coldstone ice cream on your tongue until it melts. Or perhaps a better analogy would be homemade bread hot from the oven: there is some effort involved, but the end result is nourishing. A sample quote:

When it comes to language, nothing is more satisfying than to write a good sentence. It is no fun to write lumpishly, dully, in prose the reader must plod through like wet sand. But it is a pleasure to achieve, if one can, a clear running prose that is simple yet full of surprises.

My simple plan is this: Read one book from my list of high priority authors a month, before other reading. Then fill in with other books. Though I don’t write much about Bible reading, that tops my list. I’ve bounced between fast and slow Bible reading. I consider reading through the Bible in a year fast reading. But sometimes I catch myself zipping through just to put a checkmark in that box. Then I slow down.

So if on December 31, 2012, when I review my reading, I hope I will see a Chesterton, a Spurgeon, a L.M. Montgomery, a Tuchman, a McCullough, a Dickens and a Trollope on the list.  Yes, that would be lovely.

Who is on your list: Jan Karon? P.D. James? Amy Carmichael? John Milton? J.K. Rowling? N.D. Wilson? Elisabeth Elliot? Agatha Christie? Anna Quindlen? Sigrid Undset?


One Paragraph, Eight Hours


Move over, David McCullough.  Make room for another Pulitzer Prize winner, Barbara Tuchman, to stand next to you on the pedestal of my high esteem. 

Folks, I have found an  Important New Author. (“New to me,” she shrugs and grins.) I’ve only read the preface, the introduction and the first paragraph, but I am twitterpated. Tuchman’s success in writing, given in the preface, is “hard work, a good ear, and continued practice.” 

…hard work, a good ear and continued practice…

What does that look like, fleshed out?  It took Tuchman eight hours (!) to write this opening paragraph, all five sentences, of  The Guns of August.  

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of adminration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun.  After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens–four dowager and three regnant–and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries.  Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last.  The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history’s clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.