Sunday, December 23, 2018

Book Review: Evany Rosen's "What I Think Happened"

It's fairly rare for me to read a recently published, non-academic book since academia tends to insist on disdain for any non-academic book published less than thirty years ago, but one of the lovely things about the holidays is that, if you're traveling by plane, you have a nice, long chunk of reading time that would ill serve the intellectual requirements of the latest hot lit crit text. For my trip across the country, I chose Canadian comic Evany Rosen's What I Think Happened.

What I Think Happened is a book of comic essays on Rosen's various historical interests, from the dumpiest presidents of American history and Napoleon Bonaparte, to the current obsession with Nazi analogies and, well, cheese. Rosen is not a historian and explains this fact to us at length. In the introduction, she explains that she is a "failed academic" - by which she means that she didn't do very well academically while earning her B.A. However, she also describes herself as a "history nerd," so in the end she's writing, to quote the subtitle, "An Underresearched History of the the Western World."

Fair enough - the divide between academic and popular history writing is a major problem and it was probably only a matter of time before comics became our educators of history, just as they have become our journalists and political commentators on late night. I actually don't think it's a bad idea for people without expertise to write on history, or any other subject for that matter, but one of the reasons that, in the realm of politics for example, Stephen Colbert is so brilliantly funny is that he is extremely knowledgeable. In other words, he approaches his subject through comedy, but... he's also kind of an expert. And that's why he's worth listening to. Rowan Atkinson's Blackadder is decidedly not a good guide to British history, but its hilarity is in part due to the writers' ability to use history - since they evidently know it - by drawing on the funny bits, or else making changes that are even funnier if you know the truth.

Rosen can be funny, but the lack of research beyond cursory readings of Wikipedia articles - this is the method she cops to - hobbles the book not so much by its lack of depth or analysis, but because the comedy is weakened by generalization, summary, and an unfortunate reliance on platitudes to fill in the gaps between occasional, inherently funny historical details - such as the fact that Queen Victoria, bless her, was titled among many other things the "White Elephant" - and Rosen's own jokes. Her skill with funny dialogue, though only evident in "The Founding Fathers: A Brief, Totally Imagined Oral History," is exceptional. The essays that examine subjects that genuinely seem to excite her and inspire more research, nevertheless, are not necessarily the strongest in the book. The strongest are the essays that own up to a certain internet-centric style, that is, the flippant lists, quizzes, and trivia assortments that seem to belong on a blog rather than a book: "America's Dumpiest Presidents," "Some of History's Creepiest Artists," "This Part's Just About the History of Cheese." What I Think Happened indicates that the sort of no-research, snarky, too-cool-for-school (in this case, literally) style of the internet has managed to waft onto the soil of book publishing and get its roots down.

That might sound harsh, but I will admit that the book is pleasant and easy to read, at least if you're somewhat to the left politically. That is in part due to its comfort with its own assumptions. The political point of view of the book is garden-variety American liberal, although the author is Canadian and much of her analysis, such as it is, consists of pointing out how horrible life has been historically for pretty much everyone but rich white men. There is a certain degree of truth there, but it's not a particularly scintillating point. Her essay about Jane Grey, for instance, invites us to contemplate the fact that the executed queen who ruled for nine days was a teenage girl who hadn't had any evident ambitions for the throne, which is technically true, but also not especially interesting unless you are pitching her life story for a biopic miniseries aimed at teenage girls. See, here's the rub: I know a bit more than she does about the politics of the Tudors and their succession problems and that makes the essay far less enjoyable.

In that sense, What I Think Happened is a history book for laymen that will likely turn off even armchair experts. I didn't catch many outright errors, but there were a few (Wikipedia is marvelous, but always requires confirmation from another source), but perhaps my enjoyment of her commentary on presidents is partly due to my near total lack of knowledge of presidential history. Rosen doesn't hedge on this issue, rather, she explicitly and repeatedly draws attention to her lack of research. I just can't help believing that she could have written a far superior book if she had done one more thing and not done a different thing, to wit: she should have done a great deal more research, which would have given her writing far better tethering and she shouldn't have tried to give any kind of coherent summaries, as she does in her multi-chapter "Sort of Understanding the History of the British Monarchy: A Partial, Underresearched Timeline in Several Parts."  There's no point in the larger picture because the book can't - as designed - hold any authority as far as historical fact is concerned and it would be far funnier if, well, it stuck to the parts that actually strike Rosen as funny, and thus fun to write about.

In fact, Rosen herself also seems quite bored, but she compounds this by actually pointing it out. As the book progresses, footnotes that flag the bits that she didn't want to read about because of how much they bored her increase. And she eventually resorts to an even less historically informed friend to provide her with trivia questions, which she answers on the fly. These three chapters are actually embarrassing and not at all funny because they are made up of the kind of stuff she might see in a nerdy friend's social media feed, if you didn't actually know that friend and you did know that the friend is drunk.

These problems are then further compounded by an earnestness that comes through in both the introduction and the conclusion. Rosen lets the snark drop for paragraphs that pleadingly explain "I've found - almost exclusively on weird road trips with my dad - that the past, and its hideously cyclical predictability, has proven time and again to be a delightful and often hilarious coping mechanism for digesting the horrors of the present." She really wants history to mean something to us, but what comes across is that Rosen likes watching Ken Burns documentaries and going on battlefield tours with her dad, which she assures us, are very odd and quirky and weird things for someone to like doing.

I'm probably the wrong reader for this book. I'm an academic (though I did cringe a wee bit as I wrote that, only partly because we have turned a perfectly good adjective into a questionable noun) and have read quite a few more history books than Rosen has, at least on the evidence presented here. I don't tend to rate quirkiness for its own sake very highly and my sense of humor tends to resist snarkiness. However, Rosen displays such a talent for dialogue and is so clearly enthusiastic (when she isn't bored) that I sincerely wish that a more insistent editorial hand had led her in a better direction. It's her first book and I would bet her next will be better.

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