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2011/03/14

This Book Is Not About the Thing the Book Is About



I really hate these bait-and-switch history books that promise a detailed look at some obscure but interesting subject, only to use that as a jumping off point for a more general history.

The history of the machine-gun is an expansive enough topic for an entire book, particularly its use as a tool of colonial oppression and slow metamorphosis into a weapon of "civilized" combat. In the Victorian era, machine-guns were seen as dirty pool, which was okay when fighting those pesky natives in Africa, but which no self-respecting European would use on his fellow white-man (well, maybe the Slavs. Possibly Wops and Greeks, too, but they don't really count as white). Then Archduke Ferdinand got himself shot in Sarajevo, and, well, time makes fools of us all. This is a fascinating subject that often gets retrospective coverage in histories of the First World War. A study of how the use of machine guns and public perception of them changed over time would make a great book. Alas, that's not what Keller gives us.

Oh, she covers all that, but in no more detail than you'd get from Barbara Tuchman or Niall Ferguson (both of whom she cites copiously (Ferguson haters be warned; she also cites Jared Diamond uncritically), suggesting that I'm reading a second-hand account of books I've already read). She also gives us a biography of Richard Gatling, but while she tells us what he did -- his early work inventing farm equipment, development of the Gatling gun, his difficulties selling it to the Union government, years spent improving the weapon so it wouldn't be supplanted by rivals -- she never gets inside his head, never reveals his personality. At one point she describes a machine he designed for planting seeds that sounds like it used principles later worked into the Gatling gun, but she doesn't draw a parallel, doesn't even try to explain where Gatling got his inspiration. Her account of his life is more like an itinerary than a diary.

But what's unforgivable about this book is that the history of the machine gun and biography of Gatling make up only half the narrative. The rest of the time she's sidetracked into dissertations on the history of the US Patent Office, or how steamboats spread smallpox -- both interesting subjects, but not what I picked up this book to read about. I wish historians would learn to pick a subject and focus on it.

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