The history of Eastern Europe is fascinating in the extreme. The diversity of peoples, languages and cultures along with its effect on European not to mention World History are enough to stimulate a lifetime of learning. Too bad then, that English language histories of the nation states of Eastern Europe are in many cases dust dry tomes, that emphasize politics and broad historical trends over human interest.
Let’s just be honest here, only a professional or someone forced by necessity (ex: taking a class, grad student) would ever wade through these mind numbing texts. Surely there must be a few of these volumes which are of more than passing interest, those that keep the reader not just awake, but enlivened. How can you tell? There is no foolproof method. Reading a few pages of the author’s prose can be helpful, in many of these cases especially if you are looking for a quick nap. Another method is to go by the old saying, “You can tell a book, by its cover.” Well if the volume you happen to be perusing is in hardback, good luck. The dust jackets have usually been resigned to the dust bin, with many of the volumes to follow at a later date. One totally superficial method I find useful (the complete opposite of scientific) is to study the title before you read the book. I want to emphasize this as a relatively thoughtless, as well as painless method. It can also be quite revealing. Hence the name I gave this post today, “You can tell a book by its title.”
Keep in mind that the books I am talking about are supposed to be general surveys. Be forewarned, this usually contributes to an affinity for rather dull, monotonous titles. For example, we can always find A History of Romania, Poland, Croatia or insert any other Eastern European nation as standard titles of “popular” (more than likely unpopular) histories. These tell you what the book is and what it’s about, in the broadest possible fashion. It doesn’t tell you what the book’s theme or direction is going to be. It casts a wide net in order to catch anyone who is interested. Of course, they may be interested up until the point they begin reading. This is not to say that some of these are not good books, but what “A History of…” tells me is that the publisher (almost always academic) is looking to cast a wide net in order to catch whatever interest – very little, I believe these publishers believe – may exist. With titles like these they will not be building any greater interest either. They already know where these are going to end up, on the university bookshelf. The audience is most likely hidden in the dark recesses of the campus basement talking esoterica. By doing this the publishers may also have set themselves a trap. Reading between the titles what I get out of this is that the authors and publishers are keenly aware of a greater truth, who in the hell out there in the English speaking world cares about Moldova or even knows where it’s at for that matter. They seem to be saying, it is irrelevant to the English speaking world and so are we. Nonetheless academia values it enough to buy it and never read it.
My personal favorite for these standard titles is “The History of…” as opposed to “A History of…” Such a title seems to convey a message that it’s definitive, as though anything could be definitive that covers say 1,300 years of Bulgarian history. There is something about definitive and general that does not mesh well. I do not have the figures to back it up, but my theory is that by putting , “The” in the title, the publishers or perhaps it was the author were trying to sell a few more volumes by seeming as authoritative as possible. I think more confrontational folks will go for “The” titles rather than the relatively wish washy “A” titles.
That brings me to some of the catchier titles I’ve come across while looking at general histories of Eastern European countries. I have a personal preference for titles that give you a hint of what the theme of a nation’s history might be. Obviously, it would seem to be nearly impossible for a few words to sum up a millennium or more of an entire people’s story. Yet a few choice words can draw the reader
toward the subject and create a magnetic curiosity.
Probably the catchiest title I’ve come across is God’s Playground: A History of Poland (2 volumes) by Norman Davies. Such a title lends itself to interpretation. It goes without saying that anyone who is looking at a general history of Poland, almost certainly knows something about the nation’s conflicted past, especially over the last 250 years. On a surface level, the layman will probably assume that Davies is referring to Poland’s history of being partitioned, overrun and a satellite state of Greater Powers, namely Germany and Russia. Who would not read that title and immediately think to themselves this place is important, it is worth knowing more about. They might also say to themselves, if Davies can come up with a title like that, then what he has to say must be interesting.
Another striking title comes in the form of Marcus Tanner’s Croatia: A Nation Forged In War. Tanner is a journalist so he probably knows a thing or two about headlines. In addition, Tanner probably gained a lot more interest by the inclusion of War in the title. Military history sells, much, much better than general history. If the lay reader mistakes Tanner’s history for a military one, well at least it would have sold a few more copies. Yet Tanner is telling the truth with his title, Croatia was forged in war, most recently by the Yugoslav War not to mention countless others. It is hard to consider Croatia without mentioning Serbia. I have always felt the Serbian nation feels it is their rightful duty to lead (or rule) the South Slavs. So it is not surprising to find a history of Serbia called The Serbs. This is history more about a people than a place. The boundaries of Serbia as they stand today would not do justice to the Serbs who have spent much of their history trying to rule the lands and peoples beyond their own borders. Another popular history book catches this rather well in its title, Serbia: The History of An Idea. This title makes a compelling point. Serbia is as much an idea as it is a place. Sounds sort of like the United States.
Unfortunately some titles aim for a level of sophistication that ends up coming across as vague and pretentious rather than clever. The number one candidate here is The Coasts of Bohemia: A Czech History. This is a reference to Shakespeare’s (that great Czech-phileJ) The Winter’s Tale in which he gave Bohemia a coastline. Shakespeare and the Czechs, are you as baffled as I am? Anyone who has spent time in the Czech Republic has surely noticed that Czechs are by and large intellectuals. During their history they have managed to outsmart their opponents as much by brainpower as brute force. This was probably out of necessity, a super smart survival instinct. This was a nation that after all, had the playwright Vaclav Havel as its first leader post-Iron Curtain. The Coasts of Bohemia sounds obscure and artsy. I suspect those looking for a general survey of Czech history were not impressed with the title. I am sure there are coasts in Bohemia, if you count riverbanks and lakeshores, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. In this case, the title not only wrong footed its audience, but the authors seemed to have fooled themselves into believing people will be astonished by their cleverness. I wonder if A Czech History was appended by the publisher so that the hoped for audience would have some idea of what the book was about.
If we are going to bring up the Czechs, then we surely cannot forget the Slovaks. Their story is an unceasing struggle, a millennium long struggle to gain independence. Sometimes a title can tell us more than an entire book. In this case the best known general history is A History of Slovakia: The Struggle For Survival which hits it mark. The Struggle For Survival is a brilliant catchphrase that encapsulates the entirety of Slovak history. Unfortunately, I have read this book and must confess that the title is by far its most interesting attribute. I struggled for nearly a month just trying to finish it, usually five pages or so at a time. Storytelling was non-existent, to the point where I cannot even recall one memorable Slovak personage or event. For that matter, I cannot remember anything about the book, except for the fact that I read it. It felt sort of like the reason I believe people run marathons, just to see whether or not they can make it to the finish. Ironically, Hungary which shares an intertwined and highly contentious past with Slovakia, also has a general history book written about it with much the same name, The Will To Survive: A History of Hungary. The Hungarians and Slovaks, whether they care to admit it or not share much the same thematic concept in their history: survival, but with one distinct difference: the Slovaks were struggling to escape the Hungarians and the Hungarians have struggled to escape nearly all of their neighbors. Somehow both of these nations have turned history on its head to carve out independent states despite century after century of against all odds historical happenstance.
And that brings me to my favorite titled historical survey, journalist Paul Lendvai’s The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory In Defeat. The title gets to the crux of how Hungarians gained their historic place in the European world.. Whether it was the Mongol hordes, the Ottoman Turkish onslaught, Habsburg imperialism or life as a Soviet satellite, the Hungarians have been able to outlast all invaders and occupiers. They have somehow managed the most unlikely of tricks, turning defeat into victory. The Hungarians may not have been able to escape history, but through using their innate cleverness they have molded, shaped and above all Magyarized it. Lendvai’s title seems a contradiction, in much the same way as the Hungarian presence at the heart of the Carpathian Basin. The title is intriguing, much like the Hungarian nation, a people who have seemingly outwitted history time and again. Lendvai’s title has a uniqueness that academia could learn from. And if only academic publishers would give these histories better titles, readers might also read and learn more about Eastern European history. It is said that a picture is worth a thousand words, which may well be true. By the same token a title can be worth a thousand years. It can lure you in and act as a portal in which you gain entry and insight into the histories of great nations.