Saturday, December 27, 2008

Book Review: "Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November)"

Parkinson, Judy. "Remember, Remember (the Fifth of November): The History of Britain in Bite-Sized Chunks." (London: Michael O'Mara Books, 2008). 182p. 10pounds.

The book attempts to survey all of British history through a chronological series of encyclopedia entries, each one page in length. Each page outlines a major historical event, figure or stage in British history, beginning with the Roman Invasion of AD43 and ending with the founding of the United Nations. The title, of course, refers to the Gunpowder Plot on 5 November, 1605, still remembered with the celebration of Guy Fawkes Day.

Parkinson has succeeded in creating an abundantly clear survey, which will no doubt clear up confusion many people have as to the order of events in British history. Readers can clearly see how events influenced or were influenced by one another; no entries appear to stand out as isolated from the rest, which is a credit to the author's choice of topics.

Each entry can stand alone and the book can be used as a reference, or it can be read through from front to back. Those who elect the latter will note that at times events or persons are explained in more than one entry, especially in cases where one entry is the subset of another - a battle and a war, for instance. This repetition makes it possible for readers to use the work as a reference book and should not be considered a failing.

Someone looking for a brief survey, or an undergraduate about to embark on a British history course, could certainly benefit from this book. Its brevity and journalistic prose make for light reading. Parkinson has done a fabulous job of creating what is essentially a chronological encyclopedia without leaving the reader feeling like they have been sitting with a copy of Britannica.

As the entries are short and without footnotes, the book is not of much scholarly use - though no encyclopedia is. There are a handful of instances that used direct quotations in which even a quick footnote or reference would have been appropriate so that readers interested in pursuing further reading could at least be directed. However, the lack of references was not a major issue.

Nearly all British historians will feel that their area of expertise did not receive proper treatment; many important events are only referenced in an entry devoted to something else. For instance, the South Seas Bubble gets a single sentence in King George I's article (p. 102) and nothing of its own. Likewise, many other important aspects of British history do not appear at all. Nevertheless, the task of writing two-thousand years of history in 150 entries is a major undertaking and many worthy events must be cut to make the project doable.

Since it is impossible for anyone to be an expert on a topic so vast, I am unable to comment upon the accuracy of each entry. However, I can say that the entries are fairly consistent, with a few notable exceptions. The articles "Munich and the run-up to the Second World War" (p. 174) and "Germany Invades" (p. 177) list that Britain formally declared war on Germany on September 1, 1939 and September 3rd respectively. Even a non-historian can see issue with this claim.

The most glaring problem the reviewer noted was in the "Magna Carta" entry (p. 53). In this article, the author makes a bold claim that the Magna Carta is "the most famous and most significant legal document in the history of democracy" (p. 53). This is a very partisan claim that most Americans and a good many others around the world would certainly debate. Given that the book has limited itself and decided not to provide evidence to support such bold claims, they should not be included. One cannot assume that a reader has the time or inclination to look further into the topic to come to an educated conclusion.

Apart from these minor failings, the book is certainly worth the cost and time required to read it. It would make an excellent course reading for the first week of a British history survey. More countries could benefit from a similar survey of their own history.

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