The book that sapped my will to read

I drafted my Amazon review of The Great Upheaval by Jay Winik here. Harsh as it is, it doesn't seem harsh enough. This book was godawful. It's so bad I've been scared to buy another book - over 175K books available for my Kindle but what if one of them heavily features sentences like "Stanislas was handsome and refined, warm-hearted and humble"? After 700 pages of such dreck I couldn't even read on my commute yesterday. Is anyone actually reading this book, I mean really reading every sentence? It doesn't seem possible.

I wanted and expected to like this book. Instead I find myself pondering if this is possibly the worst non-fiction book by a major publishing house that I've ever read. It's certainly the most disappointing.

To be fair, Jay Winik's thesis - how the events of the late 18th century formed the modern world - puts him in comparison to several truly great books. Schama's Citizens, Zamoyski's Holy Madness, Ellis' Founding Brothers, even Johnson' Birth of the Modern, to name a few. Comparison isn't the problem, however. Even Winik's often naive and insular take on events isn't the problem either. Not even the numerous factual errors are responsible. It's Winik's prose style that makes this book simultaneously grueling and appalling.

If someone told me that Winik wrote this book on a dare, something like, "I dare you to write a book that violates every tenet of Strunk and White's Elements of Style," I would find it completely believable. It's either that or a willful assault on the English language. At first Winik's overuse of adjectives and adverbs is annoying, then it's amusing in a morbid way and finally it makes The Great Upheaval the reading equivalent of the Bataan Death March. I'm not exaggerating. I've never before encountered a writing style so awful on so many levels. Whether it's the passive voice ("books were written, universities established," "guns were silenced") or long lists of objects to describe a culture or place or the constant burdening of every single noun with an adjective and a verb with an adverb, Winik's prose is exhausting to read.

Then there's his habit of asking a rhetorical question to further a description. Once or twice might be fine, but Winik does this dozens upon dozens of times. The most hilarious instance being when follows up one of his rhetorical questions with "good question." Why wait for reviews when you can just heap praise on yourself? Winik's commitment to tautology - "brutally decapitated", "old shibboleths" - is almost as impressive as his apparent dislike of the simple, declarative verb "said." People exclaim, exhort, decry, declare, mutter, shriek, yelp, hiss, mutter, etc, usually with an oddly chosen adverb attached as when Kutuzov "tartly muttered 'God be with us!"

Take a moment and try to imagine how that last sentence might actually be spoken. Seriously, how does one mutter, tartly or not, anything in such a way as to warrant an exclamation point at the end? Many of Winik's sentences suffer from a similar lack of logic. King Stanislas of Poland is "inebriated by the winds of liberty". Potemkin "fondled their dreams". Russia and Catherine the Great bring out the Barbara Cartland in Winik. Every time the action shifts eastward Potemkin is wailing or flouncing, Pugachev's eyes flash and Catherine is storming around like Joan Crawford. It's campfest on the Dnieper even without Catherine wondering "What would Peter (the Great) do?" The events of the American and French Revolutions and the end of Catherine the Great's reign are all dramatic and compelling enough. They don't require an avalanche of overheated prose to make them appealing to the modern reader.

Even without the atrocious writing, the book would still be a failure. The number of factual errors in this book is unforgivable. This is popular history, not fiction. Winik's subtitle "American and the Birth of the Modern World" is never given life. Aside from proximity in time, what do these events all have to do with one another? Winik doesn't explain it. He does make a multitude of unsupported assertions, my favorite being that Catherine the Great has been overshadowed in history by Robespierre. Winik (over) describes 3o years' worth of events without illuminating or satisfactorily linking them.

If you're still wondering whether to buy this book, I urge you to use Amazon's Search Inside function to read a few pages first. Or just ask yourself if you want to read 720 pages of sentences like "As in the past it was enfeebled by mass strangulations, constricted by fickle palace ritual, and suffocated by Islamic religious fundamentalism ..." Over-stretched metaphor like that are morbidly impressive for only so long.

Admittedly I finished this book out of a refusal to be cowed by Winik's bad writing. That doesn't mean I have nothing to show for it. The Great Upheaval may be a total loss as history but it's a winner as a drinking game. Just load up on the alcohol of your choice, invite a few friends over and play along:

Adjective/adverb plus noun/verb = sip
Rhetorical question = drink
Overheated synonym for "said" = drink
Long list of nouns in lieu of substantive description = drink
Tenuous metaphor = drink
Factual error = drink
Simple declarative sentence = chug

You'll be blind drunk on the sips alone after 5 pages but maybe that's the best way to read this book.

No comments: