Of Purchases Made and Not Made

30 10 2009

My job takes me all around the Pittsburgh area: Allegheny, Washington, Butler, Beaver and Westmoreland counties.  That means in my downtime between appointments I get to do things like visit out-of-the-way cemeteries and just about every bookstore in the area.  Today I had my Border’s Rewards 40% discount coupon with me, and stopped into the South Hills store.  As I’ve said before, I have more books than I could ever read in the time I have left, and as a book reviewer I have more coming in all the time, so I have cut way back on my purchases and never buy anything at full retail.  And with the outrageous pricing today, more often than not even 40% off is not good enough to justify buying a new book.  But I took the coupon with me just in case.

I narrowed my choice down to two new books: John Keegan’s The American Civil War: A Military History and Joan Waugh’s U. S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth.  These both seem like odd choices for me, because I really have little use anymore for comprehensive studies of the war, and good God, another Grant bio?  Who needs that, fer Chrissakes?

The Keegan book caught my interest because, believe it or not, very, very little American Civil War literature being churned out these days is written by true military historians, that is to say professionally trained and certified historians whose focus is military history.  And John Keegan is if nothing else a military historian, and one of considerable reputation.  But I haven’t been impressed with anything Keegan has written on our little war (and in the annals of military history, it was far smaller than other conflicts), because he tends not to limit himself to comparative analysis but rather delves into personality issues that I feel he examines with too little depth, and which are more old thesis than antithesis or even synthesis (see here for more on these three terms).  But what made my decision – and you need to have something to base purchasing decisions on, don’t you? – was this:  Keegan’s book is 350 pages.  For that 350 pages, he provides 3 pages of notes, and a three page bibliography.  For anyone other than Keegan, this would be viewed by just about everyone as unforgivable.  So, I passed.

Normally I wouldn’t even consider purchasing another single volume, comprehensive biography of Grant, but upon closer examination Waugh’s book is different.  In the weighting of Grant’s life alone: in the 308 pages (plus 50 pages of notes, but no bibliography at all), Grant’s military career is pretty much over by page 101, his political life over by page 153.  He’s dead by page 213.  Waugh has authored a memory study of Grant, one that promises on its jacket flap to reveal

how Grant became the embodiment of the American nation in the decades after the Civil War.  She does not paper over Grant’s image as a scandal-ridden contributor to the worst excesses of the Gilded Age.  Instead, she captures a sense of what led nineteenth-century Americans to overlook Grant’s obvious faults and hold him up as a critically important symbol of national reconciliation and unity.

I guess I’ll have to read the thing to find out if Waugh delivers.

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