To Read or Not to Read – That is the Question

3 08 2013

I get lots and lots of books sent to me. And I also still buy books “on my own.” And I read non-fiction slowly. And I read Civil War history very, very, VERY slowly. So, I really can’t read all the books I get, or all the books I have, cover to cover. That’s why I describe the book commentary you typically see here as Previews instead of Reviews. I scan the book, read the intro and (if there is one) the conclusion, check out the notes and bibliography. Basically, I do what I would normally do if I was considering buying the book myself. Hopefully you find that helpful.

So, when it comes to actually reading a book, I have to be very selective. Because it’s a significant investment of my time, and because the opportunity cost is great. So I don’t make the decision lightly. I have two books here, relatively slim volumes, recently received from Savas Beatie: General Grant and the Rewriting of History and John Bell Hood: The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of a Confederate General. I have reservations about both books – not about reading them, but reporting on them. The latter is written by a descendant of the subject, and my experience has shown such efforts to be typically problematic. Also, I’ve observed (and been slightly involved in) discussion of Hood’s reputation and it got heated. The former delves into the ever dangerous waters of U. S. Grant criticism. The mere mention of the book is likely to bring Grant fans out of the woodwork – I’ve seen them operate, and it ain’t pretty. They are such rabid gatekeepers (and I have no doubt they view themselves as such) that a perceived slight to anyone in the Grant solar system, let alone HUG himself, is likely to elicit a response of biblical proportions.

But after much discussion and deliberation, I’ve made my decision. As soon as I complete my current read, I’ll tackle these two. I have no dog in either fight, regardless of my thoughts on those who do (have dogs in the fight – I’m too distracted to figure out how to write that sentence so that it doesn’t end in a preposition.) I’ll report back to you as best I can. But I have a sneaky feeling that my efforts will be deemed woefully inadequate by partisans of all stripes.

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16 responses

3 08 2013
Damian Shiels

I wish I had your problem Harry! I only get sent one or at best two books to review a year :-( Still it does mean I avoid the issues you are describing! I am also a slow reader and it can take quite a while to get through a book properly while trying to absorb the information, so the ones I do read in each year usually have to be carefully selected. The days when I started a book on a whim are long gone- it is all about planning ahead now!

3 08 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Damian, if I never acquired another title I’d still have the same problem. I’m a basically dense person with far too many books, and can only hope that pouring what to me amounts to massive quantities of water over my rock-like brain will result in the seeping in of some minimal dosage of worthwhile material.

3 08 2013
Theodore P. Savas

Thanks Harry. I know you of all reviewers will keep in mind the purpose of each author, and will judge fairly whether or not he meets his stated objective.

3 08 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Don’t thank me yet, Ted. Might be I’ll think he didn’t make his case at all!

3 08 2013
Theodore P. Savas

Harry, I am thanking you for taking the time to note the books and review them. How you come down is your call and I know you are fair and that is all a publisher can ask for.

3 08 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Understood, Ted. As I had hoped was clear in the post, I (1st paragraph) have to be selective when it comes to what I read as a result of my own limitations; I (2nd paragraph) have concerns about these two books in particular because of the familial relationship of one of the authors to his subject and the very strong reactions I’ve observed from people on the other side of the positions taken by both authors (at least as summarized inside the jackets); and I (3rd paragraph) have determined to read and review them despite the fact that, by their very nature, whatever my thoughts on them may be, those thoughts are going to make someone unhappy. More than likely that unhappiness will be loudly expressed. Why have I decided to do that? I don’t have a really good reason. I just think I need to do it.

3 08 2013
Joseph A. Rose

I’ll be extremely interested in your review of “General Grant and the Rewriting of History,” having read Varney’s doctoral dissertation, which covered Grant’s relations with other federal generals besides Rosecrans. I think that there is a more than sufficient basis for his thesis. Happy reading!

3 08 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Joseph,

I have no idea what Varney’s arguments are or how well supported they may be. We may not reach the same conclusion. It’s really a no-win situation as I said. “Partisans of all stripes” includes folks on all sides of an issue who are firmly entrenched. The “anti-Grant” or “pro-Rosecrans” folks out there are likely to be dissatisfied with my thoughts as well, as I have no idea what they’re going to be.

3 08 2013
On Book Reviews and Controversy | Crossroads

[…] Smeltzer treated his audience today to a statement of his decision to review two books published by Savas Beatie: a discussion of John Bell Hood based on new materials and Frank […]

3 08 2013
Chris Evans

Interesting books to read. I’m a Grant supporter but don’t come close to people that use to post on the US Grant Message board. I’ve heard this criticism before on Grant about Rosecrans from Lamers biography of Rosey. I think George Thomas fans are more rabid than Grant partisans, though.

I find it funny Grant has swung back around from getting whipped up on for most of the 20th century though Catton and Lewis supported him through dark days.

On Hood. To me he can’t be saved from the disasters of Franklin and Nashville. Those are huge defeats that could crush the reputation of any commander. Earl Hess in his account of Kolb’s farm shows Hood was making the same mistakes early in the Atlanta campaign.

I have read supporters of Hood’s actions at Atlanta before like Stephen Davis and also Alfred Burne who in a extremely fascinating book written in 1938 (and reprinted in 2000 by Kansas) took on the icons with critical comments and got away with it.

Just my opinion.

Chris

3 08 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Chris,

I can’t comment much on the Grant/Rosecrans stuff. I don’t know that the arguments made in the new book are the same ones you’ve heard before, or even the same ones I’ve heard before, though I will guess you have read more on this than have I. Thomas “fans” are rabid, I agree. Rabidity (?) and fandom seem to go hand in hand.

Hood seems to be getting a little better treatment recently from folks like Bonds and Ecelbarger, neither of whom I believe are formally trained historians (though I like their work.) I wasn’t convinced by Russ in his book on Atlanta – we’ve discussed it and agree to disagree. I understand that there is a lot of previously unused primary material considered in this new book on Hood.

Grant certainly has his supporters and justifiably so – he won the war, after all. You’d have to put me on the “pro” side of the Grant ledger, though some of my thoughts on him (the characterization of his memoir as “self-effacing” is one I find less than accurate) might rankle. In my experience, the “goodness” and “badness” of people is rarely as extreme as is popularly conceived.

3 08 2013
Chris Evans

Thanks for the reply, Harry.

Look forward to your reviews of these books.

Chris

3 08 2013
Harry Smeltzer

I’m looking foward to reading the books. Can’t say I’m looking forward to making sense out of my thoughts on them.

16 11 2013
16 11 2013
Harry Smeltzer

Hi Patrick,

Finished the book a while back. Just haven’t finished my thoughts. I’ll check out your review.

17 11 2013
Patrick Young

Wow, you keep thinking after the reading. Amazing!

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