So I’ve been wanting to develop the reading habit more, so I cracked a book that’s been sitting for a while on my shelf. Norman Davies’ Europe: A History is my first attempt at reading one of these kinds of books live. I’ve listened to a couple books by Diamond and Niall Ferguson’s Civilization, but reading live takes a different level of effort. Audiobooks only require your time. For me, it’s driving time. Every day, one commute at a time, I whittle away at the book. The only things that can keep me from it is the odd phone call or just not feeling like hitting the button.
In one volume, Davies attempts to tell the massive story of European history. He starts with a lengthy introduction of how to even go about it. As someone new to history books, I found this useful. The different framing methods and other authors who have attempted to put it all in one book. Another section of the introduction that I enjoyed most because I’d never thought of it: where does Europe end and Asia begin? Where’s the northern border? The fluctuating European border theory gave me a chuckle. It was the first hint of the wry academic humor that shows up from time to time in the book. It has the benefit of being unexpected while not being out of character. It’s the sort of thing that you might miss if you tuned out during that paragraph. Finally, to round out the intro, Davies lays out how the book is going to go: The further forward in time we go, the slower we proceed. In other words, the closer we get to the present, the more information will be covered about each time period. Which makes sense if you consider the sources available through history. Sure, there are outliers, but on average, the earlier you get, the less primary sources there are, the less archaeology there is, the less detail there is to write about.
The first chapter gives a geographical foundation, setting the scene as it were. The Mediterranean, the mountains, the rivers, all have a hand in shaping the way people lived on the landmass. Davies doesn’t go so far as to invoke environmental determinism here, but attention is paid to how the various geographical features could be exploited. There was a section on the steppes, the plains in the far Eastern edge of what could be called Europe or could be verging into Asia. In that section, there is a poem shared, displaying the love the forbears of modern Ukraine have for the land:
When I die, make me a grave
High on an ancient mound,
In my own beloved Ukraine,
In the steppeland without bound,
Whence one sees the endless breadth of the wheatfields
And the steep banks of Dnipro’s shore,
Where one may sense the surging
River’s stentorian roar.
Make my grave there – and arise,
Sundering your chains.
Bless your freedom with the blood
Of foemen’s evil veins!
Then in that great family,
A family new and free,
Do not forget. But with good intent
Speak quietly of me.
The mention of the steppes always makes me think of the film Taras Bulba. Yul Brynner gives an unforgettable performance as a Cossack of the steppes, and he struggles to raise his sons in a changing world. The line at the end is frozen in my memory: “I loved him, like I loved the steppes.” That value of identifying oneself so strongly with the land is throughout the film, and it resonates in the piece above. The author is given as Taras Schevchenko, which confirmed the connection I made with the film. I need to watch that film again.
There’s a whole lot to this book. I imagine I’m going to do several installments in this series. I haven’t done a series on here before, so we’ll see how it goes.