NaNoFeed: on reading history

I have always enjoyed reading history, on the theory that somebody else’s troubles are far more entertaining than my own. Along the way, I picked up a whole lot of rather canny advice.

Gibbon, for example. If I were to sum up the lesson that I drew from my first reading of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, it would be this: nothing, nothing, is so thoroughly punished as competence. (A successful general was a threat to the emperor, and treated as an aspirant to the purple, i.e. was likely to be recalled and assassinated. Hence the number of military coups in the later Empire, some number of which could be classified as self-defense.)

Machiavelli, from whom I learned that it is better to be feared than loved, and that trouble is best met half-way, when you still have a prayer of choosing the ground. And that nothing is deadlier than to assume that nothing has changed, when things are changing all the time. In a word: play for keeps, because you can count on your enemies doing this.

Saint-Simon (the court memoirist, not the 19th-century socialist): Office politics is with us, now and forever. There will always be the King who doesn’t want bad news, the Mistress (Virtual or otherwise), the Hangers-On, the Court Playwright, etc. I read an abridged version of his memoirs at the time when the ex-job and I were in the last stage of our rocky relationship, and he was decisive in my (life-saving) decision to leave.

William Still, Philadelphia stationmaster on the Underground Railroad, who kept logbooks with exit interviews from ex-slaves (stored for years in a graveyard, very much at risk of his life): slave-owners indignant about their “ungrateful” ex-slaves sounded really familiar; I’d met these people in one workplace after another. The real legacy of slavery in the United States runs a great deal deeper and broader than anyone’s willing to admit, or discuss.

An entire generation of revisionist scholars of the German genocides: this was mainstream thinking, and while those involved in the implementation met unpleasant ends, the designers went on to thrive in academic and political contexts. The basic assumptions were never repudiated, and it can happen again at any time. Particularly chilling reads included Edwin Black’s IBM and the Holocaust, and War Against the Weak (on the American eugenics movement); Claudia Koontz. Mothers in the Fatherland, and Ally and Heim. Architects of Annihilation.

Not to mention that all of the above have influenced the way that I write fiction. It’s 90% politics, if you’re doing it right.



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