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February 13, 2008

tertiary literature

I've previously confessed that I'm writing fiction about Elizabethan England. I have read some serious scholarly work for background. I'm also tempted to pick up relevant popular books when I see them for sale in places like airport bookstores. That is why I have recently read Stephen Budiansky, Her Majesty's Spymaster: Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Walsingham, and the Birth of Modern Espionage; Benjamin Wooley, The Queen's Conjuror: The Science and Magic of Dr. John Dee; Peter Marshall, The Magic Circle of Rudolf II: Alchemy and Astrology in Renaissance Prague; Antonia Fraser, Faith and Treason: The Story of the Gunpowder Plot; and Robert Lacey, Sir Walter Ralegh.

I find the demand for these books a little hard to understand. You could call them "tertiary literature" because they are basically summaries of the secondary literature, with maybe a few quotes from original sources and some journalistic writing about locations that the authors have visited for atmosphere. A tertiary book can be interesting if the author has a thesis. For instance Fraser has a view of the Gunpowder Plot that's interesting. (She thinks that Guy Fawkes really did it, but in a context of terrible anti-Catholic persecution.) But for most of these books, the thesis is simply that the subject is important. Thus, for example, Peter Marshall's point is that Emperor Rudolf was significant to history. I'm not sure why people would pay money to find this out. These books also tend to be very badly edited, with many misplaced modifiers and other errors. There seems to be a relative shortage of really compelling, literary narrative history for popular audiences.

February 13, 2008 12:03 PM | category: none


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