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Compelling History

“Ugh, history is SOOOO boring!”

I hear ya, eighth grader! It’s not your fault. The fact is, most history writers suck. They may be brilliant historians but, by and large, they are lousy writers.

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I had my angle for my post on FDR plotted out before I wrote it. The site in question was FDR’s home, I felt the need to write about who he was rather than what he did. Yet most of my prior reading was on the latter: FDR and the Depression, FDR vs. the courts, FDR  at war, etc. There’s a lot of interesting reading there, but these isolated issues don’t give a full measure of the man. 

I knew what I needed. I needed to sit down & read a book spanning his whole life. Only that would let me understand FDR himself. But let’s be fair: writing a biography of one of history’s great figures is hard enough, but putting it in one volume while covering it well is damned near impossible. The stories of Lincoln, Eisenhower, Napolean, Gandhi, and FDR can’t adequately be covered in one volume. But I did some scrolling through Amazon’s reviews, and I found a book that had good recommendations. “FDR”, by Jean Edward Smith, might meet my need.

So how does one fit a momentous life into one volume? Well, this is my first complaint about Smith’s effort. He took a monumental, perhaps impossible, writing challenge, and wasted the entire first chapter on FDR’s family ancestry: Roosevelt’s wealthy forebears and Dutch family tree. Right off the bat, the book is as boring as the Book of Numbers! Who begat who, from wence did they come. Madness! Why bother with that stuff? It’s not really relevant. Sure, his upbringing is important (his relationship with his mother, Sarah, is crucial), but all that farfle about how his family emigrated to the U.S. and continually married their cousins? Who cares? It’s eating up valuable pages, and by doing it right up front, it’s setting a horrid tone for the book.

Then there’s Smith’s penchant to retroactively drop in characters. Out of nowhere, Smith will bring in a character who, it turns out, knew FDR since college! But wait, he already wrote about those college years.  Why didn’t he mention this person then? No, he drops him in and talks again about the past to bring us up to speed about this one guy and then gets moving along the main path again. This rubber-banding doesn’t happen too frequently (thank goodness) but when it does, it’s certainly annoying.

But here’s the worst part. Smith ends the book abruptly. “FDR died. The end.” No denouement, no nothing. Just “he’s dead.” Not even a wrap-up, or a summation, or an epilogue. Nothing but bibliography. It’s like, in the end, FDR’s life didn’t have any meaning. In reality he got a tombstone and a monument in Washington, but Jean Smith couldn’t be bothered to write another couple of paragraphs about his funeral train or the eulogy delivered by Winston Churchill. Perhaps he was as tired of writing the book as I was of reading it.

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History is A STORY. I love history, and historians love history, because it’s a fascinating story. Tell it like one! FDR’s life had all the hallmarks of a great novel: a man of privilege and bearing with a fairy-tale existence, suddenly struck with adversity. A man who learned, from that adversity, to become a leader of a troubled nation. A man who formed a powerful alliance of capitalists, monarchs, tyrants, egotists and soldiers that would go on to defeat the greatest evil of the 20th century and, when all was said and done,  would still remain as perplexed as the rest of us by that elusive thing known as love. What a story! But, sadly, told rather poorly in this case.

In this day and age, no one can go through their professional life with only one set of skills and hope for success. Doctors are learning to be business managers to succeed in their practices. Business managers are learning about databases in order to target their customers. Computer programmers are learning how to be salespeople so they can garner their next consulting gig. And historians need to learn, too. They need to learn how to write, how to craft a narrative. They need to learn about plot, and dialogue, and character development, and how to engender empathy through prose.

This is not to say historians should fabricate or embellish the story. I’m not suggesting they create Twilight: The Yalta Conference. I am suggesting they learn through their studies what narrative exists in the history that’s real, and use good writing to bring it out and make it interesting.

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