Monday, July 11, 2005

reading the past

My taste for non-fiction these days skews towards history, considering the last three additions to my bookshelf after I finished reading Giles Milton's White Gold : The Extraordinary Story of Thomas Pellow and Islam's One Million White Slaves.

After the Neil Gaiman forum at the Music Museum, I picked up a couple of books at the freshly minted Fully Booked store at Greenhills (Neil was kind and gracious, answering the scatterbrained questions fired at him, but I really had two big issues. First, was with the lackluster questions interviewer Ramon de Veyra asked him onstage; and second, with the appalling paucity of discussion/questions about the literary side of what he does - come on, people, he's more than Sandman):

The Prince of Europe: The Life of Charles-Joseph De Ligne by Philip Mansel (2004) is about the Hapsburg charmer who recorded or participated in some of the most interesting events of his time.

The Mechanical Turk: The True Story of the Chess-Playing Machine That Fooled the World by Tom Standage (2002) deals with the incredible clockwork automaton that stunned Europe, beginning in Vienna in 1770 and in the decades that followed.

The Chan's Great Continent: China in Western Minds by Jonathan Spence (1999) explores the western mind's concept of China, from the 13th century Franciscan William of Rubruck to Henry Kissinger.

I like histories that take my mind to different places - not just times, histories that go beyond the mind-dulling repetitions of wars and conquests and hate. I enjoy histories that explore mindsets, overturn expectations and challenge my notions. And it doesn't hurt that they're written in an accessible manner without sacrificing the details and insight that make them fascinating in the first place.

From a writing perspective, histories are always springboards for new stories.


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