In my good books
I remember someone remarking after a minor gas explosion 'The funny thing about eyelashes is that you never miss them until they are gone.'
In the same way, I've always taken my research library for granted. It's been sitting there, quietly growing at the rate of about a dozen books a month for about the last thirty years. There are some books that go a decade without being opened, and then never leave my desk for a fortnight. Other well-used books still have bus tickets as bookmarks from when I first read them as a student whilst commuting to University College in London.
The thing is, I know approximately in what book to find what information, and often pick up some extra detail that I'd forgotten about at the same time. It was all there, vaguely sorted into Greek and Roman sections, just an arm's reach away. Until it wasn't.
For twelve weeks I had to wait whilst my library made its way from Hamburg to Panama and up the Pacific west coast. It was a horribly unsettling time when every fact was an elusive beast that needed stalking and checking through the internet and then had to be rechecked by badgering long-suffering friends who still had the appropriate books on hand.
With my books back and undamaged by their long trip, I find their comforting presence on the shelves some recompense for the multiple hernias risked by the delivery men who unwarily tried to lift them off the truck. I now have probably the largest classics library in British Columbia west of the Rockies.
And prospective visitors to chez Maty should note; should I have to choose between saving the books or a guest from a house fire, I know exactly where my duty will lie.
Of whats and whys
Historians will generally agree that the two major issues that concern them are 'what happened' and 'why did it happen'? I got to thinking about this after an eminent reviewer (who rather vehemently dislikes my approach) took me to task for writing 'narrative history' which risks being 'one damn thing after another'.
And it's true. I happily plead guilty to preferring the 'what happened' aspect. This is partly because I like to write on subjects that have a strong narrative, and partly because many of my readers would actually like to have the facts before plunging into the argument. Not everyone wants to read (for example) of 'The effect of Viriathus on elections in the Comitia Centuriata' without knowing who Viriathus was and what he did.
A further problem with the 'why it happened' school is that in telling readers what to think, the author has to be very careful lest he get between the reader and the subject, filters events through his own beliefs and prejudices, and ends up with history as polemic. And polemic goes out of date awfully quickly.
To some extent, simply re-telling a story means that one has to re-interpret it. But as far as possible I prefer my readers to make up their own minds how to understand that story. It's a fortunate truth that ancient history is full of relevant, interesting - even exciting - events which deserve re-telling for their own sakes, and that's what I do. Where the facts are disputed or there is a controversy, I'll point this out and show where further details are to be found. Then it's back to 'one damn thing after another' - and I love it.
Tempora mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis
'The times change, and we are changed by the times'. So remarked Cicero, and so say I after something of a whirlwind two months.
Last time I wrote, I was busily wrapping up another book and preparing for the yuletide festivities in the mountains of snowbound Austria. I'm still in snowbound mountains, though now they are the Canadian Rockies, where I'm going to be for a while. It was always our intention to give the new world a try sooner or later, but the economic situation made it expedient to opt for sooner.
So January saw me negotiating the vagaries of the Canadian bureaucracy, packing our home, sorting out the final details of the two books I'm hoping to see come into print in 2009, and teaching a class of students on 'Athens and the fifth Century Intellectual Revolution' for the Cambridge University eLearning program.
(Actually, 'me' here generally means my long-suffering wife. Without her administrative skills, the cat and I would currently be homeless somewhere along the road to Innsbruck airport.)
The main issue now is waiting in suspense to see if about a dozen large crates of academic books will make it safely over the Atlantic and rejoin me at the end of the month. If anything happens to them, I'd suggest buying shares in Amazon Canada while I desperately try to restock my research library.
Meanwhile, have you tried this maple syrup stuff? It gives my breakfast porridge an odd but definitely intriguing flavour.
Saturnalia for obsessives ...
And we go into the season of peace and goodwill with my wife offering to kill or at least disembowel me if I do not step away from the computer for the festive season.
On reflection, it has been a kind of busy year. I usually start work at 8 am and finish at 7pm, with an hour off for lunch and a nap to re-charge my batteries. I research three days and write three days, and take Saturday off. (Sundays are peaceful, and with luck I can get in 2500 words before dinner.)
What with one thing or another, I've not managed a holiday either - not because I felt I was under too much pressure to finish what I was doing, but rather because I couldn't think of anything I'd rather be doing. Hence the sudden militancy on the part of my beloved, who most of the year uncomplainingly feeds, waters and occasionally dusts me. I've a horrible feeling that left to myself, I'd spend Christmas with Macrobius and Aulus Gellius.
On the bright side, I've had three books out in 2008 and am planning to manage another two in 2009. And I can honestly say that I've had enormous fun writing each and every one of them. So I'm happy to kick back for ten days, well nine maybe, and give the 21st century a try. Just as soon as I've finished this particular chapter ...
Athens and the Legionary
Well, the covers are on to my latest production, and one which kept me working until the wee hours last summer. There were two reasons for this - firstly because there is a tight production schedule for the book, and secondly because I just could not leave it alone. I'd shut down my word-processor for the night and then sit quietly ruminating over the text when some new ideas would occur to me. Inevitably there was nothing else for it but to fire the computer up again, and put the idea into writing whilst it was fresh in my mind. As a result, despite a tight deadline, the book actually went to the editors early.
Otherwise, the last month has been about welcoming 'Athens on 5 Drachmas a Day' into the world. We're delighted at the reception it has received, so my slavish thanks to the reviewers, who have looked upon it kindly. And even greater thanks to the reviewers who matter most of all - those who put their hands into their pockets and part with their own money to get the book. Not only is Athens selling well, but those who have purchased Athens are coming back to get Rome, and vice versa.
It's now winter, with snow so deep that the cat practically vanishes into it when she goes outside. I'm intending to spend the winter snug next to the fire with a mug of gluhwyn and a laptop, and only moving when the postman brings fresh supplies of reference books.