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Practicing what one preaches

Last night, my agent sent me an email headed “Your PW review.” Naturally, I opened it.

This went against all my best intentions. The problem with reviews is that they are sometimes written by intelligent and thoughtful people who offer helpful insights, and sometimes by self-important and ignorant jerks who are more interested in proclaiming their own ideas than interacting with yours. The problem with writers is that both kinds of reviews affect us equally. Shrugging off idiocy is well-nigh impossible.

This particular project has two peculiarities which make review-reading even more hazardous. In the first place, because it’s a four-volume project, I still feel very connected to the first volume as I work on the second. Normally, by the time a book comes out, you’re about eighteen months away from the creative phase, which makes criticism easier to handle. But I’m basically still in the middle of the creative process, and unfavorable reviews have the potential to stop me cold.


(The best place for a writer to live while writing a history of the world. No contact with the outside whatsoever.)

Second, the History of the World is a REALLY BIG SURVEY. When I started working on it, my favorite journal editor, John Wilson of Books & Culture, said, “You know, every historian who reads this is going to hate the section that deals with their speciality and like the rest.” How true. This kind of book requires simplification of complex issues. Scholars who have spent their working careers teasing out the complexities of the various historical episodes I relate will inevitably feel that I’ve simplified way, way, way too much

I decided that I should probably pass all reviews through my assistant, who could decide whether or not it would be helpful for me to read them. However, what are you going to do when the first industry review (PW=Publisher’s Weekly) shows up in an email?

Open it, of course.

So I read it. Then I had to decide whether to post it here. This was a more complicated decision than you might think, because 1) it wasn’t entirely positive, and 2) I firmly believe (and have said in public) that it does writers no good to complain about reviews. You write, you put it out there, and you let the readers decide whether it’s worthwhile.

In an attempt to practice what I preach, I have decided to post the review without comment. I have, however, also decided to post, below the review, the chunk of text to which the reviewer refers.

And then perhaps all of YOU can weigh in.

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Publisher’s Weekly review, 11/20/06

The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome
Susan Wise Bauer. Norton, $29.95 (800p) ISBN 978-0-393-05974-8

Bauer (author of the four-volume The Story of the World: History for the Classical Child) guides readers on a fast-paced yet thorough tour of the ancient worlds of Sumer, Egypt, India, China, Greece, Mesopotamia and Rome. Drawing on epics, legal texts, private letters and court histories, she introduces individuals who lived through the famines, plagues, floods, wars and empire building of the ancient world: the marvelous array of characters includes Gilgamesh, Sumer’s first epic hero; Yü, the founder of the Xia dynasty in China; and Tiglath-Pileser III, who restored the Assyrian empire’s fortunes. Because Bauer covers so much time and territory, she focuses on the Western cultures with which she seems most comfortable; the chapters on Asia and India are the least developed. In addition, some of her assertions—for instance, that the biblical book of Joshua is the clearest guide we possess to the establishment of an Israelite kingdom in Canaan—contradict general scholarly opinion or are simply wrong. However, Bauer’s elegant prose and her command of much of the material makes this a wonderful starting point for the study of the ancient world. 80 maps. (Feb.)

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The text to which the reviewer refers is a footnote which reads, in its entirety, ” Like the Exodus, the Conquest has been assigned widely varying dates across a span of centuries. Like the Exodus, the Conquest has also been rejected entirely by some scholars, who prefer to interpret the archaeological evidence as indicating a gradual invasion carried out by various small groups of Hebrew invaders. Since the evidence is inconclusive, the debate will continue; the account in Joshua is the clearest guide we possess to the establishment of an Israelite kingdom in Canaan.”

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I will now refrain from further comment. Happy Thanksgiving.