Reading Farther Afield

Writers should read. We should read a lot. It’s true, and we all know it — even once we figure out that reading is a great way to avoid writing.

I don’t read nearly as much as I did in earlier decades. I do, however, read, usually two or three or four books at once, and that doesn’t include the manuscript or two that I’m editing.

Recently I took on a book that was way off my beaten track: Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World, by British historian Noel Malcolm. I was turned on to it by a copyediting job, a journalist’s ms. that combined history and memoir about the Adriatic. Almost everything about it was new to me. I had to look a lot up. Agents of Empire and its author were mentioned more than once. I requested the book from the regional library system.

It’s well researched, well written, and altogether riveting, but I have to admit: It was also challenging, because I had so little background in either the Mediterranean world or the 16th century.

That turned out to be a plus. Agents of Empire shed a lot of light on areas I was somewhat familiar with, as well as introducing me to perspectives I hadn’t considered. I’ve never really understood what happened in the Balkans after the former Yugoslavia broke up. This book about the 16th century gave me some clues.

As a result, I’ve resolved to take more deep dives into areas about which I know next to nothing.

For those interested, here’s my review of Agents of Empire on GoodReads:

Agents of Empire: Knights, Corsairs, Jesuits and Spies in the Sixteenth-Century Mediterranean World by Noel Malcolm

I was drawn to Agents of Empire because it’s about a part of the world and a period about which I know next to nothing, and it came well recommended. Wow. Professor Malcolm was already adept in the Balkan region and the early modern period when he came across a chance reference to a 16th century manuscript that seemed to have been written by an Albanian native — the earliest extant evidence of such a thing. It took him years to track it down, but after he did (IIRC it was lying unremarked in the vast libraries of the Vatican) it proved to be a sort of Rosetta stone, leading to the interlocked Bruni and Bruti families.

The Brunis and Brutis were indeed rooted in Albania, but to say they got around is an understatement. The book’s subtitle gives you an idea: in two or three generations, they produced a Knight of Malta, a Jesuit, a ship’s commander at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), a few spies, a translator at the Ottoman court, a powerbroker in Moldavia, and several merchants. Using their stories as threads, Malcolm creates a rich tapestry of place and period primarily from the perspective not of kings and emperors, popes and sultans (though they do appear in the story), but of those a couple of levels down in the socioeconomic hierarchy.

Readers who come to this book with more knowledge of the period will undoubtedly retain more of the details, but for me its great gift is its challenge to my notions of geography. Even though I know better, I fall into the habit of seeing Europe, Asia, and Africa as distinct entities. Focusing on the Mediterranean in a period when most long-distance travel was by sea undermines that habit in a big way. Commerce binds the coastal areas together; the never-ending need for raw materials, foodstuffs, and livestock binds the coasts to their inland regions. The players in Agents of Empire range as far as Spain, and a whole sequence takes place in the South of France.

Much warfare takes place on the water as well, less in pitched battles than in raids on shipping. The sea lanes were lifelines, and ships at sea were popular targets for corsairs and pirates. (Corsairs, I learn, professed some loyalty to a particular state. Pirates were entirely self-employed.) This spawned continual negotiations between municipalities for the ransoming of captives and the return of or compensation for cargo. Enslavement was a booming business. The relatively affluent and/or well connected had a good chance of being ransomed. The others were likely to wind up on the galley benches — those ships did not depend entirely on sails to get around.

Finally — I wish this book had been around when I was trying to make sense of the bloody war that followed the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s. The shifting border between the Ottoman Empire and the various jurisdictions east of the Adriatic explains a lot. Warfare was frequent here too: several members of the Bruni-Bruti clan died in battle or when cities fell, and others lost their livelihoods and had to relocate. The region was multiethnic, multilingual, and multi-religious (Orthodox, Catholic, and Muslim); while the Ottoman Empire was strong enough to hold it together, it was reasonably cohesive at least on the surface, but the potential fault lines were there.

So I recommend Agents of Empire to anyone interested in either the place or the period, even if you’re starting out with little background. Prepare to feel a little overwhelmed, but trust me, it’s worth it. I recommend it to those already familiar with Mediterranean history, too, though it’s probably been on your shelves for several years now.

View all my reviews

Why Are We So Horrible to Each Other Online?

This historian Heather Cox Richardson posted this question as a hypothetical and invited responses. As often happens, I realized that my response was the rough draft of a blog post, and because it’s about written communication, this is the blog it belongs in. I have, of course, messed with it a bit. 😉

Aside: If you have any interest in U.S. history and/or the current U.S. political situation and you aren’t already following HCR’s Letters from an American, you should. As a subscriber, I can blather in the comments, but you can read it for free. You can find it in your inbox almost every morning. Also for free, you can listen to the podcast Now and Then, which she recently started with sister historian Joanne Freeman on the Vox/Cafe network.

Well, in my experience plenty of people aren’t horrible to each other online, and “online” isn’t monolithic. Some online situations facilitate horrible behavior and others don’t. My hunch is that a big factor is that online we can’t see the reaction our words are having. In face-to-face (F2F) encounters we can. (Need I say that some people are capable of being horrible F2F and never regretting it.) Humans are sensitive to the physical presence of others — this is even true for those who perform before large audiences. Online we don’t have those cues. We’re posting in isolation.

I suspect that my mostly positive experience over the years on Facebook is partly due to the fact that a significant percentage of my FB friends are, like me, editors and/or writers, or they work in fields where communication is front and center, like education or health care. We pay close attention to the intended audience for what we’re writing or saying. This shapes how we say it, both the words and the tone. Most of us most of the time probably do this without thinking too much about it.

Those of us who move through different circles in the course of a day or write/edit for different audiences become adept at code-switching. I’m currently editing a book-length manuscript about the oil industry. The intended audience includes readers who know a lot about the oil industry and/or a fair amount about economics, but it also includes readers who are interested in energy politics but know little about economics or the oil company at the center of this book. Earlier this year I edited (1) a travel memoir focused on the Adriatic, and (2) a memoir that combines personal history with African-American history and women’s experience into a hard-to-describe whole. I’m here to tell you that no style guide recommendation I know of could apply to all three jobs. Too much depends on the subject at hand and the intended audience.

Consider, too, that plenty of people active online have less-than-stellar skills in written communication, period. They aren’t accustomed to speaking with people outside of their own circle either. In other words, I’m not surprised that many people are horrible to each other online. This makes me value all the more the skills I’ve developed as an editor.

Over the decades I’ve learned to pay close attention not just to individual behavior but to the underlying systems that shape it. Since I joined Facebook 10 years ago and Twitter last year (I held out for a long time, and on the whole I don’t think I’ve missed much), I’ve noticed a big difference between them and the e-groups I’ve been part of since the late 1990s. Part of it has to do with effective moderation (on Facebook and Twitter there effectively isn’t any), but even more it has to do with structure. The structure of social media makes it hard to have anything close to a conversation or discussion. The comment threads move in one direction only. Subthreads surface here and there, but they’re mostly ephemeral.

If you take umbrage at what someone else has posted, it is very hard to ask that person what s/he meant. Since we generally know very little about the person whose post we’re pissed off at, misunderstandings are inevitable, and it’s much easier to fire back a rejoinder than to ask for clarification.

And we’ve learned that Facebook et al. ❤ this. Their algorithms privilege posts that inspire immediate reactions — emojis and sharing — not those that encourage temperate speech and clarification. As writers and editors we know how much communication benefits from the ability to step back for a few minutes (or hours, or days). Social media do not encourage this.

The short version? As writers, editors, and other word people we know that communication is possible across political, regional, ethnic, and all sorts of differences. We know that we have the skills to help it happen. But social media does not make it easy. I hope it doesn’t make it impossible.

K Is for Knowledge

You’ve probably heard it so often, repeated with such authority, that you’re ready to throttle the next person who says it: Write what you know.

Likely you’ve also heard, or even yourself said, the common rejoinder, which goes something like That’s crap. Haven’t you ever heard of research?

Well, of course. What we know is fluid, expanding and deepening even without any conscious effort on our part. For writers, research is ongoing. We read, we listen, we travel to a new place, we walk down a street we’ve walked down many times before, noticing some things for the first time.

My hunch is that Write what you know surfaced at least in part as a response to the notion that one could only be a real writer if one had had certain experiences. The requisite experiences — being in combat, for instance — were almost invariably skewed male. At a women’s writing workshop in the late 1980s, a bunch of us got to talking about this. We couldn’t help noticing that experiences common to women, from childbirth to housework to caregiving, weren’t considered worthy subjects for serious literature.

One of us remarked, half-facetiously, that “the only suitable subjects for academic poetry were bullfighting and war,” whereupon several of us set out to write about bullfighting, which, need I say, none of us had ever done. My contribution grew into “The Bullfight Sonnets,” which was published by Sinister Wisdom in 1988. It includes these lines:

. . . Novelists extol
the crowd, the sun, the blood, the kill, the role
of manhood challenged and found worthy. I
am less enthralled. Instead, I wonder why
cerebral critics desperately admire
heroes who hold their shit when under fire.

Can you tell we had Ernest Hemingway on the brain? Not so much Hemingway, however, as the “cerebral critics,” English teachers, and others who held Hemingway’s spare style up as the pinnacle of literary excellence. At the time, writing about New York, published in New York, and taken up by an audience of New York–based literati was also elevated a step or two above “regional” writing. Take that, Willa Cather, Flannery O’Connor, and Eudora Welty.

I think that the English-language “canon” has gotten more regional, more international, and a lot less white since then. Nevertheless, I continue to take Write what you know as encouragement to start wherever we are, in place, time, and subject matter. Themes of universal — or at least widespread — concern can be reached from anywhere.

One of my favorite axioms is Your writing will teach you what you need to know.

A corollary to that is Your readers will teach you what you need to know more about.

I live on Martha’s Vineyard, an island off the coast of New England that you have probably heard of whether you’ve been here or not because it gets written about a lot, by journalists, novelists, poets, and others. Most of them don’t live here year-round, or haven’t lived here long. It’s not hard to tell which of these writers have been listening to the place and the people in it and which either didn’t take the time or just don’t know what they don’t know.

It really is OK to write about places where you haven’t spent much time and people with lives and backgrounds very different from yours. Hell, historians and historical-fiction writers regularly write about times where they’ve never been, and plenty of them do it very well. (On the other hand, if we’ve never been there either, who are we to tell them that they’ve got it wrong?) Research is required for sure, but it can only get us so far: there’s more to recreating a place or time than avoiding anachronisms and getting the street names right. Imagination and empathy are also necessary, along with an awareness that no matter how much we know, there’s always a lot that we don’t.