And the first book of 2007 is...
Dreadnought: Britain, Germany and the Coming of the Great War, by Robert K. Massie (1991). Despite the title, this book is not just about the building of the Dreadnought and the British/German arms race. Rather, it covers the history of both Britain and Germany pretty much from Victoria's ascension to the throne to the beginning of WW I. Massie focuses on the personalities of the major players during this time period. Mini bios abound--Victoria, Prince Edward, William, Emperor of Germany, Bismarck, von Tirpitz, Jacky Fisher, Winston Churchill, Balfour, Holstein, Bethmann. Every prime minister, every chancellor, every foreign minister, every ambassador, every defense minister and sea lord. There is a history of the British Navy from the mid 19th century (with a flashback to Trafalgar as well), and a history of the German decision to build a Navy after traditonally relying on a powerful land army. Boer War? Check. Boxer Rebellion? Check. Franco-Prussian War? Check. Fashoda and Agadir? Check and check. And somewhere along the way, the Dreadnought is built, Churchill becomes a literary sensation, an archduke is assassinated, and Belgium becomes a big issue.
If it seems like I am just listing lots of people, places, and events, well, that's because I'm trying to make a point. Considering what I've enjoyed in past books--that is lots of facts, details, and big casts of characters (note my undying affection for top-of-the-listers Big Trouble by J. Anthony Lukas and The Echoing Green by Joshua Prager, as described in The 9 Best Books I Read During 2006 post ), it now seems ridiculously contradictory for me to come down against this book because of its very comprehensiveness. Yet I am.
I'm not saying this book was a waste of time, I'm not saying I'm sorry I read it. In fact, I learned a lot (and probably should have taken notes along the way, but that would be conceding a potential lack of faith in my own overstuffed, memory and I am far too vain for that). I just think, though, that in trying to cover absolutely everything, Massie loses the chance to really examine that which the title would lead you to believe is the main point of the book, that is the impact of the Dreadnought class of ships themselves.
Now what the author would probably argue is that in order to understand the Dreadnoughts, you need all this background information. Yes, to some degree that's true. But the importance of the Boer War to the British psyche could be sketched more precisely and the correct points still made. Everything that happens in Morocco could be covered more efficiently and I think we'd get the result of the conflicts. While many entertaining historical figures are introduced, and it's usually great to know about all these people, do we really need multipage bios of Haldane and von Kiderlen-Waechter? Again, I know it seems incredible that I am coming down against interesting information about people and places but I am. I do so because I believe that with so very, very much detail, everything is reduced to the same level of importance. Campbell-Bannerman seems to be equal to Churchill, Jagow as necessary as Bismarck. Massie's use of lively excerpts from letters helps somewhat in bringing these characters to life but after a while even that loses effect; one dry, witty British letter writer becomes interchangeable with another (the notable exception and book highlight being a telegram sent on the eve of WW I from the German ambassador in Britain to William, describing the reaction of British foreign secretary Edward Grey to German actions, with the Kaiser's hysterically funny margin notes included). When we finally get to the building of the Dreadnought, and the following ships, they seem not much more important than any other ship, agreement, or conflict.
Call me shallow for focusing so much on the title, but the title indeed is the problem here, because I expected to come out of this knowing more about the ships than Asquith's wives and girlfriends (not as interesting as it sounds, trust me). There is some good information about the decision-making that went into choosing turbine engines over the old piston style, some cool stuff about the gun turrets, but still I was left wanting more. There is very little about the public reaction to the Dreadnought, there is nothing from the people who worked on them or the sailors who sailed these ships. In a book with the title Dreadnought, there is only one photo of the ship itself.
The other problems I have with this book are the problems that come with such expansiveness. When you go really wide with a topic, after a while it never seems big enough. Improbably, as much as this book covers, you're left wondering about other things. If you want to write about warfare at the beginning of the 20th century, how can you include only the barest mention of the Russo-Japanese war? Why are the words airship and zeppelin each only mentioned once in 908 pages? If you're going to discuss the price of building the Dreadnought class of ships each year and the fights to get the naval budget passed, why not give a better picture of the British economy? I would have liked to have understood whether Britain was spending money on the ships that was desperately needed elsewhere or whether the economy was fine and the outcry against was from reformers who wanted to direct more money to social programs.
Other problems include juggling all these different people and time periods. A person may be mentioned in a series of events in one section, but then a complete bio of that person shows up much later and you find yourself thinking, oh yeah, didn't he overthrow Gladstone's government or something like that? Yet now I am reading about his love for fishing and his cottage in Shropshire. An event is mentioned in the bio of a person but then the event itself is discussed two hundred pages later (most frustrating, a reference early in the book to the "naval scare of 1909," with an asterisk noting "see chapter 33." Okay. I will send a postcard when I get there.). I know it's a difficult task to keep all this moving when covering so many people, events, and years, but I felt sometimes like the structure could have been a little more helpful. And this is a general note to all nonfiction writers--if a footnote on a page is long enough that it either a) covers the entire bottom third of a page or b) has to flow onto another page, I think that means it should have been included in the text somewhere. Just a little pet peeve of mine.
I would never tell someone not to read this book because as I noted, there is much to be learned in it, and I guess you could call it a fairly good primer for anyone interested in the time period. However, I guess I am just a little disappointed. Maybe I am too easily led and expected too much (or too little) from the title. It's a reasonably fine book, just not the book I had hoped it would be or perhaps should have been.