Wednesday, July 7, 2010

A book gone wrong

What went wrong from conception to execution with historian Margaret MacMillan's Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History? The premise is simple enough—perhaps too simple and ill-formed: history is, to borrow a phrase, everyone's "last refuge," used to promote peace, fight for justice, defend indensible actions and make claims for land or power. One could easily make the same argument for religion, which might make for a more interesting book since in religion you're with with elements inherently open to interpretation. MacMillan doesn't exactly say that "history" has the same plasticity, as events themselves can't be argued with, but people and principalities are selective with their history . . . when they aren't outright distorting or elliding facts to shape the narrative toward their benefit.

Hardly a thesis against which one can argue.

The issue, perhaps because of this loose thesis, is with the book's structure. Each chapter seems aimed at approaching a different way history is misused, but I couldn't identify any difference between the chapters. There's repetition, as MacMillan goes to the same historical events for her examples, and the chapters become laundry lists of how countries (and un-countried populaces) manipulate their people by how their tell their histories. The process by which the book was assembled comes into question when you read the same aphorism twice within a few pages. Too, it's obvious who's buttering her ideological bread, which weakens the tone.

MacMillan is a Canadian professor whose book Paris 1919 won praise and awards. It has to be put togethere better than this, which reads like an inflated essay.

No comments: