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Book Review: I Wish I’d Been There, Book Two: European History edited by Byron Hollinshead and Theodore K. Rabb

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One of the most troubling things about the study of history is the tendency to see the key turning points as inevitable. This fatalistic view keeps us at a distance from history, as it's hard to stay interested in a story if the outcome is predetermined or inescapable. This attitude was perhaps best expressed by a popular t-shirt that emerged when the James Cameron film Titanic was released. The shirt said, "The boat sank. Get over it!" By that logic, the only compelling part of a narrative is its resolution. But this is flawed. Romeo & Juliet is performed thousands of times around the world every year, and I've yet to see a shirt that says,"They both die. Get over it!" Unfortunately, though, that attitude seems to be on the rise. It's up to clever historians to correct this misunderstanding.

If we want to understand history's turning points and the personalities behind them, we have to try and see things as people saw them at the time. They didn't, of course, know how things were going to turn out; a feat of great heroism could easily have been a legendary blunder if it had failed. A great blunder, on the other hand, may not have been such a bad decision without the benefit of hindsight. This approach to history is much more interesting, not only for its complexity but because it's more comparable to the problems we face today. Thankfully, Byron Hollinshead and Theodore Rabb have put together a series of essays to tackle history in just this manner. The result, a collaboration involving an international panel of scholars, is a very rewarding read.

The book opens with an essay on the death of Alexander the Great by Josiah Ober of Stanford University. This may be the best essay in the book, hooking the reader from the first page. Ober does a great job of setting up the events leading up to Alexander's grand conquests. He gives us a good insight into Alexander's character, culled from the best available sources. Even in his own time, Alexander was considered the greatest conqueror the world had ever seen.

When Alexander died suddenly at age 32 of fever (or was it poison?), the course of most of the known world was significantly altered. What was the reaction of the conquered people of Egypt or Persia? What plans did Alexander have for the future? And what sort of a fellow was he exactly?  That's what Ober wants to know, and although he can't answer these questions without a time machine, he can make a well-educated guess based on what we do know. This he does, and superbly.

Ober picks a truly monumental event in European history for his essay. Other milestones of European history to be found here include the crowning of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor (by co-editor Rabb), the last gasp of the Spanish Armada (Geoffrey Parker, Ohio State University), and the signing of the October Manifesto by Tsar Nicholas II (Richard Pipes, Harvard).

But the book also includes several lesser-known moments, including a few that we wouldn't normally associate with "history," per se. Katherine Duncan-Jones (Oxford) writes about a command performance of Shakespeare's Richard II by a disgruntled nobleman plotting against Queen Elizabeth. Ross King discusses the work of Edouard Manet, namely his work in the famous "Salon des Refuses" of 1863, which was a landmark in art history and forever changed the role of art in popular culture. But the most unique is the story by Freeman Dyson (Princeton), who looks at the effects of modern scientists (namely the unheralded Fritz Zwicky) to debunk the Aristotelian theories that lay behind classical astronomy and physics.

Not every essay is a winner, but there's enough intriguing material here to delight anyone with an interest in history. For those with a passing interest, the short, vivid essays will serve as a great primer on the European world. And for the experts, even, it is always useful to look at different historical perspectives — especially from these writers, whose expertise is quite impressive.

Hollinshead and Rabb also collaborated on a similar book about American history. I haven't read it yet, but I will soon. I love the idea behind these books and hope there are more to come.

 

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