This post about movin’ the river put me in mind of another, rather different story.
One of my first editing jobs, back in the day, was for an amateur historian of the Retired Teacher variety.
A music teacher, too, so I don’t quite know why he turned to history of all things – but so he did. He started doing his own field research, and after a while, decided he had made earth-shattering discoveries, and must write a book. So he went to the one editor he knew of – me – and said that he wanted editing.
I told him one usually edits a book. A written book.
“I don’t care about usually. I want someone to follow me as I write. To bounce ideas with. To assist me all the way trought.”
Had I known any better, I would have run like the wind. But I didn’t, and not only accepted, but rather looked forward to it, as an interesting experience. It would be more like co-authoring than anything else – and I love history… what could go wrong?
Oh, so many things.
The fellow couldn’t write to save his soul, hadn’t the first notion about structuring a paragraph – let alone a chapter or a whole book – and had a deep-seated aversion to archival research.
Why, why, oh why history, you’ll ask again. I was very soon wondering myself – but the worst was yet to come. His theories at first seemed interesting enough, although there was no convincing him that he needed to support them somehow. Then one day, he sprang on me his Big Discovery: he claimed that, at some point in the 14th Century, the local lords had had the largest river in Italy moved. Secretly and more or less overnight. So very secretly that no one had realized in seven centuries…
I was flabbergasted. When I found my voice again, I asked how on earth he thought he was going to prove this. He said he needed no proof: that was how it had happened, and it couldn’t have been otherwise. And all the other historians who hadn’t seen it, were either incompetent fools or lying scoundrels.
All of which he meant to say in his book.
For months I tried to dissuade him, or at least to have him do some research. I preached historiography methodology, I told him (real) historians would butcher him with relish… to little avail, at first – and right when I thought I was perhaps seeding a few healthy doubts in his mind, he went to a local vanity publisher, who pronounced himself interested, and started to pre-sell copies to local municipalities.
“Did he read your chapters?” I asked, on receiving the news.
No, the publisher hadn’t bothered. He had seen the maps and, apparently, fallen in love with the project. My amateur historian was ecstatic. The publisher understood him (as I did not, was heavily implied), and he was a publisher, he’d know, wouldn’t he?
Of this I had my doubts, but there was no chance the poor man would ever heed my warnings by then. So I did my best to beat his style in some appearance of readability, and to tone down the worst of the attacks on established historians, and that was it.
In due time, the book was published, and I was invited at the launch. I went – with many misgivings…
My poor amateur historian was no better speaker than he was a writer. He muddled his arguments hopelessly to begin with – and then the (real) historians – three of them – closed in for the kill. They were unamused at being called names in print. As was to be expected, they shredded the poor fellow and his theories to ribbons, even the less loony ones. Most of all, they laughed at his portable river, and at his utter lack of documented proof…
The publisher, when called upon, candidly said that he had never read the book, and that authors should take all responsibility for what they wrote.
It was a nasty, gory, unpleasant affair – and do you know how it ended? The amateur historian stopped speaking to me for a few years. Because, well, nobody is ever grateful to Cassandra, I guess.
Then he decided he could forgive me, and to this day, whenever we meet, he starts on it again: how he was misunderstood, and how all other historians were either fools or liars, and how it must have been the way he says – because it couldn’t have been otherwise.
I try to avoid the man as much as I can, and when I can’t, I nod, murmur and then flee – but goodness. Moving rivers is an interesting activity!
Davide Mana said:
The idea that a river was somehow diverted and set along a new course is not in itself impossible (I speak in general, not of the case you mention in particular) – but it is the sort of thing a geologist (possibly of the quaternary geologist or geomorphologist persuasion, but actually any earth scientist worth their salt) could confirm or deny in… let’s say 5 minutes using Google Earth or, in the dim and distant past when Google Earth was not available, in about two hours.
If the weather’s fine, in a full afternoon, with some hiking and sightseeing, with sandwiches and a beer thrown in for good measure.
But I guess amateur historians laugh at the notion of geomorphology and landscape reading more or less like they laugh at the idea of research.
la Clarina said:
Well, of course it wasn’t so much the notion of moving the river, as of doing it in such swiftness and secrecy… In my corner of the world, river moving was actually a popular sport, beginning with the Benedictine monks.
It’s the “secret” part that becomes tricky – all the more because my village boasted a system of dams ans locks that was crucial to the defense of Mantua, as it enabled to raise or lower the level of the three lakes surrounding the city. Therefore, the place was subject to close scrutiny by both foes (the Visconti of Milan) and neutral bystanders of invincible curiosity (Venice).
I have this feeling it would have been hard to “secretly” move a pail of water – let alone a large river – under the nose of a Venetian spy…
But all of this I failed to impress on my poor, research-loathing, amateur historian.
Davide Mana said:
More of a (bad) fantasy writer than a (failed) historian, all things considered.
I found the attitude of the publisher inconceivable, how many other books are published that way, without anyone really reading them?
la Clarina said:
Alas, a good deal, I fear… There’s plenty of unscrupulous vanity publishers, who will print anything as long as they see a profit. Local history is a good choice, usually, because besides the author’s family and friends, there is half the population of the relevant place, and a few local administrations who will buy a number of copies to use as gifts…