Read a book

Spring break is winding down, and I just spent a whole day off on Saturday — an event rare enough, outside of major holidays, that it always feels bloggable.

Even rarer, I spent almost the whole day reading some 250 pages of dense prose in Alan Schom’s biography, “Napoleon Bonaparte.” I just made my composition students read “Billy Budd” and “Crime and Punishment,” which both discuss revolutionary France and Napoleon quite a bit, so he has been on mind, and the book was on my shelf. Just 550 pages to go.

I have this book from Ed Kemmick, who gave it to me not because he is a kind and gentle soul (although he is a kind and gentle soul) but because he hated the book and thought perhaps it wouldn’t be wasted on a Napoleon buff like me.

It was a good guess. The book certainly has the flaws that maddened Ed, including an unusually large number of typos and mangled sentences (carefully marked by Ed) for a book from a major publisher. It also fails to adequately clarify some matters about which my knowledge of Napoleon is sketchy, such as exactly how he navigated the turbulent waters of Revolutionary France and exactly what he did at the siege of Toulon that made him so famous.

But this book has the most thorough account of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Egypt that I have ever read, and it says a great deal about his family and about Josephine that I didn’t know. And it was fun comparing his account of the Italian campaign against David Chandler’s magisterial account in “Campaigns of Napoleon.” Plus, I am just a sucker for Napoleon — an extraordinary, wonderful, hideous giant of a man.

One touching detail: In 1800, a couple of diplomats from the infant United States visited France to try to smooth over various concerns. The visit was a success, and when they were leaving, Napoleon offered them a bag of recently excavated Roman coins.

They talked it over, then declined the offer. They weren’t permitted to accept gifts, they said.

That’s just adorable. In turn-of-the-century France, top officials, including Napoleon and his family, were routinely skimming millions of francs worth of loot, supplies and art from the national treasury. When they were caught at it, it was ignored or covered up, for fear of stirring up the masses (Napoleon already had shut down 48 of Paris’ 60 newspapers, if memory serves). Stealing from the public was the whole point of holding public office, wasn’t it?

America really was something different. And that’s why when I hear people complain about how corrupt government is, I always think: Read a book sometime. You have no idea how lucky you are.

2 thoughts on “Read a book

  1. I’ve come across your interest in Napoleon in past blog posts and want to ask you what book you would recommend as a good intro to Napoleon.

    I’ve been steeped in Tolstoy for a couple years now and find myself agreeing with his (sometimes tiresome) critique of historians in War and Peace who hold up people like Napoleon as great men who shaped history. Is Tolstoy wrong?

  2. Oddly enough, I don’t really have a good answer to this question. For general military matters, David Chandler’s “Campaigns of Napoleon” is definitive. Segur’s and Culaincourt’s accounts of the Russian campaign are hard to put down. Nigel Nicolson’s book on the Russian campaign, “Napoleon 1812,’ is a good read. Felix Markham has a good short biography called simply “Napoleon.” There’s another good book on the general political situation in Europe at the time, but I can’t remember the name or author at the moment. Those are just some of the books I have read; there probably are better ones I haven’t read.

    I reread Tolstoy’s second epilogue of “War and Peace” while preparing for class this fall (because I made students read Dostevesky), and I think Tolstoy was basically right. Napoleon, like all “great” man was shaped by events beyond his control, but he did make a difference. Unfortunately, his achievements were ultimately rather empty because he was driven much more by self-aggrandizement than by any desire to help France.

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