I blame Edward James for this. I’ll get to why in a minute.
I’ve always been a split personality when it comes to the value of entertaining popular histories – film or book – which contain substantial errors of fact. I’ve settled on, “If this book or movie gets more people interested in and reading about the Medieval Period, it’s a good thing. If this is the one thing they ever read/see about it, then it’s not.” Since I’m unaware of anyone ever doing a survey of people who watched Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven or read Tuchman, Weir or Cahill, I don’t know where those books/movies stand on my “net benefit to mankind” scale.
But there’s one book that seems to be above suspicion. Its place on the net benefit scale is secure. That book is William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. I get a lot of questions through various forums (feel like I should write fora here but I guess “forum” has become ingrained enough into US culture that I’ll anglicize it – after all, I just read “sarcophaguses” in a blog post) about good books to read as a starter and spend a fair amount of time telling people that no, William Manchester isn’t a good starting point. From what I hear Manchester is SO off base that you can’t even recommend him to raise interest in the period.
My pet joke when talking about erroneous popular histories has been, “By looking in A Distant Mirror illuminated by A World Lit Only by Fire you can see How the Irish Saved Civilization.”
But I haven’t read it. I’ve read other people’s opinions of it. The book certainly garners a response among Medievalists. I’ve read Jeremy Adams’ review in Speculum, 1 but my criticism is second hand – the old, “I’ve been told that …” or “This is what so-and-so thinks …”. And this is what I communicate to people – but it lacks that, “I’ve read it and this is why it sucks” personal touch. Plus I couldn’t legally testify at a trial in the US.
A few months ago I came across a copy of Manchester in a used bookstore for about $3. I bought it with the idea that I’d force myself to read through it and put together some sort of review of my own. I was figuring I’d read it when my employer sent me to a conference somewhere – I can never get serious reading done in an airport or on a plane anyway (though I can work on a presentation or other task there – go figure). Well, money’s tight and travel funds for a couple I was going to have been withdrawn in favor of salaries – a decision I support.
So there Manchester sat, unread and unloved (or even unhated). I have it in a “special” place on my bookcase so I see it every day. Then I came across this post related to Cahill by Edward James. If someone as accomplished as Dr. James has read something like Cahill, then what the heck is little old me putting Manchester off for? So he shamed me into it – and last night when I woke up with my typical insomnia and needed to read something for a bit before getting back to sleep, instead of grabbing Roger Bagnall’s Egypt in the Byzantine World, 300-700 which I’d just started, I grabbed Manchester and knocked off 30 pages.
I’m going in. If I don’t come out, I hope someone will come rescue me. ;)
1 Adams, Jeremy DuQuesnay, (1995). Speculum 70, 173-174.