Have you ever read a book, usually non-fiction, that started pretty well and then an authorial editorial or a certain slant in the writing appears? At best you pause, blink, and think, “Huh. OK, that’s a bit odd” and keep going. At worst you come to a screeching halt, maybe skim ahead a little to see if things improve, and never finish the book.
I encountered the mild version with a book about gunpowder I’ve been reading for the Colplatschki series. It has a lot of interesting stuff (which I will inflict on my readers tomorrow) but the author is anti-war and seems anti-military to an extent. His rhetorical question about why did the enlisted men of the Royal navy during the Napoleonic wars not mutiny, or at least practice civil disobedience by refusing to fight, struck me as very odd and out-of-place. He wrote well and I finished the book because it had material I needed and that fit with other, more specialized volumes I’d read. But I wondered why he’d decided to write about a topic that he apparently dislikes intently.Probably personal curiosity about one technical thing inspired him, even though for most of its useful life gunpowder was a tool of war rather than of peace. A historian wrote an excellent biography of the South Carolina politician “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman even though he loathed the man. Tillman was racist, disliked poor whites almost as much as he disliked blacks, corrupt, and part of the “redeemers” who took over after 1877 and tried to undo Reconstruction and eliminate civil rights for blacks and poor whites. He’s an important figure in South Carolina and southern history, and well worthy of a good biography. But by the time he finished the book, the author liked Tillman even less than he had when he started the project.
There’s also the lure of lucre. If someone offered me a very large sum of money to write a book about, oh, third wave feminism, or the history of Latin America, or spiders, I’d do it and do it to the best of my abilities. I suspect I would not enjoy the process that much, though, and it probably would not change my opinion about two of the three topics. Spiders outside the house are fine. Spiders inside the house are not fine. Spiders spinning webs that get between me and my destination or that require me to remove them before I can get into my vehicle are very, very ultra not fine.
I’ve read books about repugnant topics that the authors wrote because the stories needed to be told. I’ve read a few that the author’s bias is so blatant that it almost becomes a joke. I’ve read books by authors who had strong opinions about the topic but kept them out of the work. So it’s interesting to encounter a case of someone writing a readable and technically useful volume that includes context that he does not want to understand. Indeed, war is evil. But it can be a very necessary evil when compared to the alternatives presented at that time and place. And the 1600s, and 1800, were different countries from the early 21st Century in western Europe.