Saturday, August 01, 2009

Revisiting a favorite book

I read many books, but reread few of them. One of those few is The Guns of August, by Barbara W. Tuchman, a page-turning account of the first few weeks of World War I, covering the period between Archduke Ferdinand's fateful visit to Sarajevo and Gallieni's taxicab army hurrying to face the Boche at the Marne. I read it for the first time as a second-year law student in 1981, and again several years after that, and today I purchased a new copy of it at Borders. I expect to begin rereading it tomorrow, with full assurance that I will enjoy it every bit as much this time as I did the others.

The book was published early in 1962, approximately one year into the presidency of John F. Kennedy; and JFK, a literate man with a deep appreciation of history, read it soon afterward, apparently with fortunate results for all of us. The Guns of August, an absorbing chronicle of the blunders and miscalculations on both sides that resulted in one of the greatest cataclysms of all time, influenced his handling of the Cuban missile crisis later that same year. I learned only today that Kennedy gave a copy of the book to British prime minister Harold Macmillan, along with an observation that contemporary statesmen had to find a way to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls that had characterized the disastrous summer of 1914. If it were proposed that the Constitution be amended to require all prospective U. S. Presidents to read this book, I would probably favor the idea.

Apart from its merits as a historical work, The Guns of August is also widely -- and rightly -- acclaimed as one of the 20th Century's great masterpieces of literature. It is significant that nearly all of the books I have ever read more than once are noted for having been exceptionally well-written. The English language is one of the great loves of my life, and I respect any author who knows how to use it effectively; and in such cases, I find that reading his or her work is a bit like eating a meal at a fine restaurant in Tuscany, in that one does not merely consume such a meal, one savors it, and often returns later to that same restaurant to enjoy another feast. Barbara Tuchman was such an author, and her compelling prose brings to vivid life those long-ago personalities and events: von Schlieffen and von Moltke; Sir Edward Grey; Albert, King of the Belgians; Joffre; Hindenburg and Ludendorff; Churchill; Tannenberg; Louvain; Liege; the pursuit of the Goeben and the Breslau; and on and on.

The Guns of August has long been on my short list of books I have wanted to read again, and it seems to come to my mind regularly during this particular season of the year, this being the ninety-fifth summer since the outbreak of what used to be called the Great War. It goes without saying that I look forward to enjoying it once again over the next couple of weeks. The copy I purchased today is the 1994 Ballentine paperback edition, which includes a forward by Robert K. Massie, another of my favorite historians. He relates one very significant clue as to why Tuchman was such an outstanding writer: she spent all of eight hours composing a single paragraph of her masterpiece, which happens to be its most famous paragraph and the first to appear in the entire book. It is worth sharing and savoring here:

"So gorgeous was the spectacle on the May morning of 1910 when nine kings rode in the funeral of Edward VII of England that the crowd, waiting in hushed and black-clad awe, could not keep back gasps of admiration. In scarlet and blue and green and purple, three by three the sovereigns rode through the palace gates, with plumed helmets, gold braid, crimson sashes, and jeweled orders flashing in the sun. After them came five heirs apparent, forty more imperial or royal highnesses, seven queens -- four dowager and three regnant -- and a scattering of special ambassadors from uncrowned countries. Together they represented seventy nations in the greatest assemblage of royalty and rank ever gathered in one place and, of its kind, the last. 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."

I recommend this book to my own readers, believing as I do that the effort would be time well and profitably spent. And as for myself, I rather doubt that this will be the last time I read it.


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