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Subject: Story vs. Details rss

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Hunga Dunga
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Some history books are written more as colorful narratives, others more as grueling blow-by-blow statistical reportage. How do you prefer your history? Or does it depend on the era or scope of the conflict?

If you can, please suggest two books that exemplify each of these styles, which one you liked more, and why!

Thanks, H.
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Max Coffey
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Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror is the epitome of narrative style. The 14th century comes alive in the mind of the reader.

Numbers, Prediction & War by Dupuy is my pick for the prime example of statistics generation as a study of history.

I actually favour both methodes, as each has an inimitable way of putting the reader in the shoes of history's great dilemmas.
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Etien
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Answer: it depends on what I want/what I am seeking in a book. If its for enjoyment where I do not have to read the paragraph 3 times, then I prefer a narrative. However, if its for research and detailed fact-finding or game design, I would appreciate the statistical work. Both need to be based on good research through a reputable publisher. I am taken aback by a wargame magazine article that listed an online .com site as a source -- are you kidding me? Instant Red Flag.

EXAMPLE: James McPherson on the Civil War (both well-researched and written):

1) Ordeal By Fire (2 vols.) - more scholarly/footnoted work

vs

2) Battle Cry For Freedom -- popular narrative

Guess which one sold the best?
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Tim Parker
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Beevor's Stalingrad has great flow and stories that were woven into the tale. So does A Bridge Too Far by Ryan.

I've also read some of Glantz's Stalingrad trilogy which has the more statistical approach, IMO. Don't get me wrong: if you really are into Stalingrad and want detail, Glantz is your man. I learned some things, but it is tough going when the details are so precise.

I like the narrative approach better. When I used to teach, I always used stories as my hook to teach the kids the facts. So I used to tell the Khruschev UN story of the shoe banging incident as background information for the Cuban Missile Crisis so the kids would think of Premiere K and his shoe and then use that personal element as a link to the details of the CMC.
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I prefer the narrative approach that is considered a solid work of historical writing/research.

As I've gotten older my ability to stay awake while reading at night has diminished... I don't want to be snore before one page is done...
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Ron A
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Ah, but this is not an 'either/or' type of question. Just as wargamers have multiple games on various battles: Bulge/D-Day/Market Garden/fill in the blank; I frequently have multiple books on the same topic. It's horses for courses.

Sometimes I WANT tactics heavy books, like Naval Tactics, by Wayne Hughes, other times I want a narrative, such as Franks's Guadacanal. Both types of books help me enjoy games.*

Same with air combat, there are days when I will wade through Shaw's Fighter Tactics, basically a textbook on aerial maneuvering, other days I will pull out Sundstrom's The First Team.

The thing is, Hughes and Shaw serve up some narrative with their tactics and formula; and Sundstrom is not adverse to discussing tactics in detail.

Dupuy has books that merge narrative AND some (lighter) mathematical analysis (Hitler's Last Gamble and Elusive Victory are both in my personal library, um, EVERY book I've mentioned is in my personal library).

As I write out my answer, and thinking some more, I will admit that the narrative-type book gets more attention that straight tactics books-- Shaw is REALLY tough sledding at times.

*I will also admit that most of my games are tactical in nature (Tokyo Express, Harpoon 4, Wing Leader: Victories 1940-1942, etc), somebody who doesn't play tactical games may not prefer the more narrowly focused books.
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Paul
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"Capitaine Conan," by Roger Vercel (1934).
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I really prefer well-written narrative history over dry and copiously footnoted academic works.

As examples of what I like I'd throw out:

"The Guns of August," by Barbara Tuchman.

"The Price of Glory," by Alistair Horne.

"The Unknown War: The Eastern Front," by Churchill.

All three are not perfect, that's for sure, but they are riveting reads.

On the academic side, I use those works more as references and rarely read them cover to cover--they are extremely valuable for that, and I salute all the work and research that goes into them.

Many academic works can be painfully boring. I say that coming from an academic background. Sitting through our annual reading of papers at the school was an awful experience. It's not the fault of the writers, it's how they're taught to be.

So I prefer my historical works interesting and narrative, even if flawed.
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Eddy Sterckx
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Why can't we have both ?

"Shattered Sword" comes to mind. It's painstakingly fact-heavy, but at the same time has a great narrative.

Even pretty short books like "Black Hawk Down" have both the data and the story right.

Purely narrative books always leave me wanting more data/facts and pure-fact academic works are simply not meant for reading, but for looking things up, so it's the middle ground which I find the most enjoyable.
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Carl Fung
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It really does depend. Particular when I need to research a subject, a good narrative book will help get me in the mood and following that the heavy tome will solidify the details I need.

Case in point for the Battle of the Bulge, Charles MacDonald's A Time for Trumpets is an excellent book retelling participants's stories while painting the picture of the battle. Hugh Cole's The Ardennes: Battle of the Bulge is dense in its details, being an official account of the battle and relying on official reports and after action accounts and finely details of the movements and strategic decisions. This book paints the individual leaves on the battle picture. Had I started with Cole's book, I would've been either lost or lost interest.

Probably the prime example of the nut-and-bolts author is Glantz who I actually quite loathe to read but religiously reference when researching an East Front topic.

On the opposite side, narrative authors are plenty and popular. Antony Beevor, Rick Atkinson, John Keegan, Stephen Ambrose, Martin Middlebrook, and Mark Bowden are just a handful of these types of authors (many are former journalists who know how to weave an engaging story together while telling the reader historical events).
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Carl Paradis
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CM Randall wrote:
I prefer the narrative approach that is considered a solid work of historical writing/research.

As I've gotten older my ability to stay awake while reading at night has diminished... I don't want to be snore before one page is done...


Strong Coffee is your friend. whistle
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Jason Cawley
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Details. Stories without details are generally romantic lies rather than truthful history.

Details can be presented well, allowing a clear and comprehensive view of events, rather than badly, meaning disorganized, unconnected, and confused. But they are not made more accurate or comprehensive by being related from the bottom of a well by an interested participant who was wrong about what was happening - to illustrate a principle.
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    To some extent I think your question boils down to "do you prefer good authors or bad authors?" because a good author can work both concepts into a single volume.

    Two of the very best are already mentioned here, Tuchman and Parshall/Tully, where you have writers that can clearly lay out the technical aspects of a particular situation, and then pause for a moment to put the narrative into moment.

    Tuchman in particular has these pages in her books, special moments where she's laid out all the details and then pauses, putting you into the head of the person in the hot seat and asking the questions "what would you do? what was he thinking?" and giving you the chance to assess for yourself. Once you learn to pick out those patches in her text you find yourself reading carefully, looking for her setup.

             S.


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Mark Johnson
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I've been gaming a long time, but am a late bloomer when it comes to reading history books. I've found that I prefer the sort of books that gave a wider view, and lots of context to the conflict being described. This doesn't map exactly to the statistical tomes you mentioned in the original post, but it's close. I contrast it with the more visceral memoir of individual soldiers and their tactical experiences, which don't resonate with me. I'm sure this is related to my similar preference for higher scale wargames, not the tactical stuff.

Edit: Ben's right, below. Maps!!!
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Ben Delp
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Gimme a story. And there better be some maps in there.

But why, oh why, do some books have to put their "gallery" of glossy-page illustrations right in the middle of a chapter? Don't they know I HAVE to read a book front to back, and have to stop reading to look at all the illustrations, even the ones referring to people/events that the book hasn't gotten to yet? Then I have to go back and reread the last page before the illustrations to keep the thought flowing when I get to the other side. Then when I get to the new person/event in the text, I have to go back to the illustrations to remember what the person looked like. Then I have to back up and reread the last paragraph to keep the thought flowing again.

It's chaos, I tell you. Pure chaos.
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Captain Tuttle
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Pierre Berton is a master of the historical narrative.

I highly recommend his books on the War of 1812:


The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106162.The_Invasion_of_Ca...

Flames Across the Border: 1814-1815
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106163.Flames_Across_the_...

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Geoffrey Burrell
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Brothers in Arms by: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is a narrative while the WWII Almanac crunches numbers and statistics.
 
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Hunga Dunga
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delp1871 wrote:
But why, oh why, do some books have to put their "gallery" of glossy-page illustrations right in the middle of a chapter?

It's much cheaper that way.

Much cheaper.
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J H
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I second everything he said.

quinonoid wrote:
Pierre Berton is a master of the historical narrative.

I highly recommend his books on the War of 1812:


The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106162.The_Invasion_of_Ca...

Flames Across the Border: 1814-1815
http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/106163.Flames_Across_the_...

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J H
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Interesting. Do you know why it is cheaper?

Hungadunga wrote:
delp1871 wrote:
But why, oh why, do some books have to put their "gallery" of glossy-page illustrations right in the middle of a chapter?

It's much cheaper that way.

Much cheaper.
 
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Rich Stone
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Alison Weir writes engaging story / narrative. A good example is her "The Wars of the Roses" which was a real page turner for me. Impressive considering the need to navigate all the names (several key players have the same first name), titles, and switching back and forth between names and titles. Also a challenge to convey the politics and intrigue of the back story since the battles only took up a couple dozen days across a 32 year time period.

A great example of details is Anne Curry's "1415 Agincourt". I found it a laborious, but worthwhile, read. In it you get a glimpse into the mind of an academic historian tracing through events, citing the original sources describing the events, and indicating why the author believes one of the sources is more likely accurate than the others.

Due to time constraints and laziness I prefer story / narrative but am very glad I read the Curry book.
 
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Hunga Dunga
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RedPriest wrote:
Interesting. Do you know why it is cheaper?

Hungadunga wrote:
delp1871 wrote:
But why, oh why, do some books have to put their "gallery" of glossy-page illustrations right in the middle of a chapter?

It's much cheaper that way.

Much cheaper.


I can't remember the technical term, but books are bound in a standardized page count. Maps and especially photos are reproduced on a different type of stock. If the photo pages were to be lined up where you want them, unless you're extremely lucky, there would be a serious amount of hand labor involved. The alternative is to print the entire book on one type of paper, but the maps and photos won't look as nice.
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Mark J.
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A narrative book with end notes. I now only read the statistical type works for reference reading relevant sections as desired.

Good narrative writing:
The Centennial History of the Civil War 3 volume set by Bruce Catton

This Kind of War by T.R. Fehrenbach

The Ten Thousand Day War by Michael Maclear

Gettysburg by Steven Sears - This is somewhere in between


Statistical blow by blow writing:

Arabs at War: Military Effectiveness, 1948-1991 (Studies in War, Society, and the Military) Paperback – September 1, 2004
by Kenneth M. Pollack
 
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Mark J.
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Hungadunga wrote:
I can't remember the technical term, but books are bound in a standardized page count. Maps and especially photos are reproduced on a different type of stock. If the photo pages were to be lined up where you want them, unless you're extremely lucky, there would be a serious amount of hand labor involved. The alternative is to print the entire book on one type of paper, but the maps and photos won't look as nice.


Interesting I did not know that, mystery solved.
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