Saturday, October 10, 2009

Guns of August, A History Book Review

I have read many historical fiction books such as Colleen Mccullough's First Man in Rome series, the Alexander the Great Trilogy by Valerio Manfredi, Tides of War and Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. All these books and more have made me a fan of history. Like other history aficionados, I have also enjoyed watching television documentaries on various time periods in history shown on PBS, the A&E, and History channels. Though, as many other casual history admirers, the one thing I was never motivated to do was to go to the non-fiction sections of a bookstore or a library and buy or check-out a book on history. This was due to the belief that a history book had to be dry and without energy or passion. One of the first history books that I read all but showed me wrong regarding my previous views on history books. The reader of this article may ask, why I decided to pick up a history book at that time. A good question indeed. The answer is that it was a suggested extended reading option from a Western Civilization course. I decided to take the risk and invest my own spare time to read this book. Well without further delay and added suspense let me move to the point of this article, and that is the Guns of August.

The Guns of August, written by Barbara Tuchman, 1963 Pulitzer prize winning non-fiction book is a wonderful book describing the events of the first month of World War I. The Guns of August is a great example of how history should be done and depicts history with beautiful literature. Mrs. Tuchman captures the readers right off the bat in the first chapter with her description of King Edward's funeral. She creatively weaves in the background to the impending catastrophe of World War I by describing all of the royalty and dignitaries that are present at the funeral parade. The first paragraph in the first chapter is well written and representative of her literary skills.

So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England ..After them came five heirs apparent, fourty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens-four dowager and three regnant The muffled tongue of Big Ben tolled nine by the clock as the cortege left the palace, but on history's clock it was sunset, and the sun of the old world was setting in a dying blaze of splendor never to be seen again.

Mrs. Tuchman does not imagine or use her creativity in figuring out what was on the minds of people, she instead tells the reader exactly what the historical figure said or if she does not know she tells the reader so. She conveys the private emotions and the thoughts experienced by the great minds during that tense first month of the war, quoting from sources such as memoirs and autobiographies. Her ability to inject quotations from sources while maintaining her fluid prose style is amazing. She uses her creativity and imagination in weaving the facts together in a story. Last but not least what adds to the reading experience is the author's cunning ability to show connectivity between historical people and events. One of the great scenes in the book is depicted when King Albert makes his speech declaring that Belgium will not surrender to Germany. Meanwhile looking on is his son, who later as King Leopold III surrenders to German forces in 1940. Although at times some of the descriptions of the troop movements could seem tedious reading, the author provides detailed maps and studying these maps for a few minutes gave me a good understanding of the military strategies.

Based on my overall wonderful experience of reading the Guns of August, I would recommend it as a must read for all those casual history lovers who have always awed at the thought of picking up a history book. Although it is a book focusing on the first month of World War I, in my opinion it is a good book to be read in introductory Western Civilization courses to make the students aware of how creative writing history can be. This may at least inspire more students to read more history books, and then maybe a few of those would go on to become the next great Barbara Tuchman. For now, at least for a casual lover of history such as myself I will settle myself with the conclusion that reading a history book can be lots of fun.

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