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Ironichles


Book Review: Patriot or Traitor: The Life and Death of Sir Walter Ralegh

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I'm writing this review with mixed feelings, not because I can't make up my mind if this book is good or not, it is in fact quite good. Instead the contents of this work of descriptive history needs to be evaluated against modern approaches to teaching history. I'm going to try to explain what I mean by that.

When you're writing a novel you want to begin with a bang, you want to make the reader interested. It's a modern approach to fiction writing we can trace back to Goethe and his short novel: The Suffering of Young Werther. That novel starts with: I'm so glad I don't ever have to be here again. It puts you right in the scene and sets up the mood of everything that follows. Later on novelists and especially screenwriters have picked this up and refined it to an art. E.g. if you can't engage a movie audience in the first 10 minutes you've lost them.

In this book about Sir Walter Ralegh, by Anna Beer, the same approach is used. We immediately learn in graphic detail how the protagonist meets his ending. So the question is: does the effect of starting with a bang work for non-fiction as well? I think it does, even though I don't like that it does. Chances are I'm too old and set in my ways to appreciate what this format can do for learning about historical facts, but it felt too forced, too on the nose. It does work though, it does get you engaged and connected to a human being who lived a very long time ago in a period where daily life was a lot more brutal to say the least.

Ironically the author goes against the 'novel' approach of the book by adding lots of detail that gets in the way and doesn't add to our knowledge of who this person Ralegh was. This could easily have been fixed by using footnotes and end notes. Providing a listing of names who were involved in certain event in Ralegh's life, although historically relevant, gets in the way of following the narrative. At some point you simply read over it because trying to remember all those names simply doesn't work and doesn't help.

Overall I appreciated the human aspects and approach. This otherwise abstract from long ago became a crisp clear individual in my mind. As such I think some of the extrapolations and interpretations the author makes are fully warranted. More so because they are noted and indicated.

We're living in an age where the skill of writing is applied to otherwise dry subjects like history. I wish all high school history books were written in the same style and manner as this biography.
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