So many books to read, so little time.

Law of the Jungle

with 10 comments


This morning I started making inroads in my anti-library, grabbing E H Carr’s What is History? (1961) as I headed for work. As an undergraduate I read this classic and pithy work on the theory of history, but that was so long ago that it now counts as unread.

Next to Carr sat Robert Fisk’s The Great War for Civilization: The Conquest of the Middle East (2005) – a worthy tome, described by the Boston Globe as a “magisterial report from the shifting front lines of the Middle East”.

Weighing in at almost 1300 pages of text, this muscular slab of a book commands my anti-library, overshadowing its puny neighbours. “Pick me!” it bellowed. My heart quailed. I should read it, I know – it’s been hanging out in the anti-library since January – but sometimes you just want slim books that can be swiftly read and don’t weigh you down as you run for the bus.

Is there a process of natural selection at play here in the anti-library? A law of the jungle, where small and lithe books are read while large and cumbersome tomes remain unopened on the shelves? Time will tell.


Written by kotare1718

October 16, 2008 at 9:03 am

Posted in Nonfiction

Tagged with ,

10 Responses

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  1. I haven’t read the Fisk book, but often I recoil from most (non-anthologized) nonfiction over 600 pages in length. If the author isn’t able to sum up his or her argument in that amount of time, then it reeks of self-indulgence. However, I do make allowances for older works (such as, say, the Edward Gibbon corpus) where such length was expected.

    Adam Elkus

    October 16, 2008 at 11:24 am

  2. I tend to agree – indulgence and a weak editor who allows the writer to rabbit on.

    That said, there are some books, fiction or non-fiction, which are large but compelling throughout – Braudel’s ‘The Mediterranean’, or Dumas’ ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ spring to mind. I re-read Dumas a while back and found it difficult to put down.


    October 16, 2008 at 5:48 pm

  3. Indulgence and weak editing. Exactly.

    Fiction writers who become popular start to suffer from literary elephantiasis. Their editors are in a weaker power relationship, the authors are able to jam more stuff into the books, to the detriment of the books. This happened with Stephen King, for example.

    Some of the best history books are lecture series published as a book. The format requires the author to brief and focus on the highlights.

    Lexington Green

    October 17, 2008 at 4:28 am

  4. Michael Howard’s “The Lessons of History” is a classic of that sort of genre. Lean, sober, cynical, but thoroughly humanist even as he describes the horrors of the 20th century and our propensity for violence. It’s all just a series of lectures he gave at Oxford.

    Adam Elkus

    October 17, 2008 at 5:43 am

  5. Likewise Ronald Wright’s ‘A Short History of Progress’, based on the 2004 Massey lectures.


    October 17, 2008 at 6:11 am

  6. Another classic in that genre is “American Strategy in World War II: A Reconsideration” by Kent Roberts Greenfield. Every page is good, no waste, no throat-clearing.


    October 17, 2008 at 2:22 pm

  7. Have to admit that I was also seduced by the appearance of Fisk’s grand Churchillian tome (I share a weakness with my other Muscovites for books that require steel reinforced shelving.) It took me about 250 some pages (somewhere in the middle of the Iran-Iraq war for Fisk) to put the book down for another time (say 27 months in the Peace Corps- make sure it is not a Muslim nation. If one was not familiar enough with Fisk’s journalism, the reader might take the endless litany of violence and torture as a case for the barbarity of certain people.) I would recommend however a video podcast of a lecture Fisk gave for WGBH Boston, entitled “War, Geopolitics, and History,” featuring a glowing endorsement of the book and author by Noam Chomsky.


    October 17, 2008 at 2:35 pm

  8. I take Fisk in small chunks (his Independent columns). They are collected in a new book called “The Age of the Warrior. “

    Adam Elkus

    October 17, 2008 at 4:46 pm

  9. I read Fisk’s columns occasionally, but he is not a journalist that I seek out. His writing can be interesting, but it is predictable – he has a set view on things and never varies from that. I think that really good journalists mix things up.

    I also dislike the way his anger – at the US and Israel – deeply colours his writings. Some people – who, like Fisk, are set in their attitudes, and harbour anti-American attitudes – may enjoy this. But I find it irritating.

    Journalists that I follow on the Middle East and Afghanistan are Robert McHugh, Jason Burke, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad and Declan Walsh. They all have a somewhat detached style.


    October 17, 2008 at 6:29 pm

  10. Times are changing, and if we really are in a “post-American world,” it’s hard to see how these sometimes monomanically anti-American journalists and writers (Fisk, John Pilger, Chomsky, etc) will adapt. Their writing hit its shrill apex during the unipolar moment (1990-2003).

    Adam Elkus

    October 17, 2008 at 6:56 pm

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