Mar 21, 2009

Musical Chairs: BOOKS

The hard part about trying to write a history of the powerless is that they leave so few records.

This has been the challenge of Adam Hochschild's career, from trying to get a sense of the suffering of the African people of the Congo in his chronicle of a forgotten episode of European imperialism, King Leopold's Ghost, or in writing a history of the abolition of slavery in the British empire, Bury the Chains, or in his current project, in which he is writing about British conscientious objectors in WWI. It's much easier to find records for upper-class opponents of the war than the working-class ones, Hochschild said.

In the end, he said, this means that the African perspective is lacking in two books he wrote about the sufferings of African people from both imperialism and slavery.

NPR book critic Maureen Corrigan asked how Hoschschild always manages to open his books with moments or revelation or understanding or transformation.

"Sometimes the truth is messy complicated and morally ambiguous and ends badly. But I do believe that one can pick out moments that have this quality," he said.

Corrigan asked: do you ever have to stop yourself as a writer and say, I'm shaping the scene too much?

Hochschild: The danger as an author is falling in love with the hero of your story, as Hochschild admits he does, because then you ignore that character's flaws. In King Leopold's Ghost, Hochschild said, he probably did not make enough of Edmund Dean Morrell's racism or the fact that he was likely manic-depressive.

Hochschild said he wrestles with the demands of storytelling, in which the tendency is to make the heroes heroes and the villains villains.

Corrigan: How do you envision your readership? Are you ever hampered by the fact that you're going to have academics writing to you and talking about how you didn't include the necessary charts?

Hochschild: I have a surprisingly good relationship with academics. I can talk their language. I know how to do footnotes. There were no American historians who specialized in King Leopold's Congo, so it wasn't like I was treading on their territory. Historians have often read his book and made helpful literary as well as factual corrections.

We need to give a lot of academics credit for being less academic than they appear.

Corrigan: Has the digitalization of records made your research easier?

Hochschild: Not yet. Library catalogs are online, but the old documents--hundreds of pages, parchment with sealing wax, bound together with string--haven't made it yet.

Corrigan: What do you think about the future or reading and books.

Hochschild: "I worry about it some...I'm not at all sanguine that these new technologies, Kindle and Sony Reader, are going to be good for books....It feels like there's something so much less permanent about it, less heft." He's also worried about attention spans. "I do think there is a deep hunger for stories that's going to be there for a long time to come. But in some ways the easier technological availability of these things makes them less valued. Maybe there's an analogy...I spent a lot of time in Russia when it was the Soviet Union. [In those years] Russia was a country of fanatical readiers." Poets would give readings to stadiums of listeners. "People on the subway, look at the books, they're reading Camus and Dostoevsky." Once books were no longer "forbidden fruit," the amount of serious stuff that Russians read dropped dramatically. Instead they were reading, "Fluff" imported detective novels, romances. Is this the way books are in our culture now?

Audience member: What's your technique?

Hochschild: 1) An idea. 2) A year of just reading, and taking notes that would be incomprehensible to anyone else.A "significant proportion" of UCBerkeley's 10-million volume library are usually in his house. "I'll do nothing but read and take months from 6 months to a year." Then he forces himself to stop and do a rough draft. "Making the first draft is the hardest of all." He tries not to "fall off the wagon" and do more research after that, but often he does.

The remaining time is rewriting and going back to archives for more source material.

Bury the Chains: Phase 1: reading: 1 year
Phase 2: First draft: 1 year
Phase 3: Re-writing and more archive work: 2 years
Total: 4 years

1 comment:

  1. Pretty comprehensive review. I recently read King Leopold's Ghost and have a review on my blog. You can check out most of my thoughts on the book here: