What I’m Reading: An Interview with Alexander Rose

tags: interview, Alexander Rose

Erik Moshe is a freelance writer based in Northern Virginia.

Alexander Rose is the author of Washington's Spies: The Story of America's First Spy Ring, which served as the basis for the AMC drama series, Turn: Washington's Spies. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, New York Observer, the CIA journal Studies in Intelligence, MHQ: Quarterly of Military History, Invention & Technology, Intelligence & National Security, National Interest, and the English Historical Review. His latest book is Men of War: The American Soldier in Combat at Bunker Hill, Gettysburg, and Iwo Jima.

What books are you reading now?

“When I’m working on my own book, I tend to read nothing but books about the subject at hand, so in my free time I read anything but books about the subject at hand. It’s mostly a diet of science fiction (The Expanse series, Neal Stephenson, Iain M. Banks’s Culture series), nerdy strategy guides to board games like Twilight Struggle, the George MacDonald Fraser oeuvre (aside from the immortal Flashman series, he wrote some marvelous memoirs and novels), and interesting bits-and-pieces like Writings From Ancient Egypt, a new Penguin edition edited by Toby Wilkinson.”

What is your favorite history book?

Any book of essays, letters, or narrative by Hugh Trevor-Roper, the greatest of historians and the finest writer of them all—aside from The Venerable Gibbon, of course.

Why did you choose history as your career?

In a way, it’s the family business (my late father was a professor), but also because I drifted into it after drifting into and out of journalism. It was a return, I guess, to where I had started many years before, when I was getting a doctorate and training to become an academic. I’d learnt a lot about archival work, the importance of footnotes and sourcing, a sense of distance and objectivity; why not write trade books using those skills?

What qualities do you need to be a historian?

Good judgment, I think. You need to be able to weigh conflicting, incomplete, spurious, and ambiguous pieces of historical evidence to arrive at a sound and reasonable conclusion. A delight in irony is also useful.

Which historical time period is your favorite?

Like my father, who started out as a historian of Renaissance science before moving on to Wagner and then Heisenberg and the Nazi atomic-bomb project, I tend to skip around eras and subjects. I focus intently on one, say, the War of Independence or Anglo-Scottish medieval politics, learn as much as I can, write the book I want to write, and then find another area to excavate. So I don’t really have a favorite period, though I do enjoy the inter-war era. My least favorite period, going back to my undergraduate days, is Tudor history. I just can’t find it interesting, inexplicably. That said, I should write a book about it and finally break this stupid mental logjam.

Who was you favorite history teacher?

I have two. The first was John Röhl, with whom I spent an entire year reading nothing but German diplomatic correspondence,1890-1914. His skill at teaching young and naïve undergraduates the importance of the close study of original documents is unparalleled. Also, we who were fortunate enough to be selected for his tutorials learned an enormous amount about Kaiser Wilhelm II’s sex life, which is always a plus.

The second was the late Stephen Medcalf, whose tutorials on the Middle Ages were electrifying. He would suddenly burst into a ten-minute rendition—entirely from memory—of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English, pronounced flawlessly. He was a polymathic gentleman-scholar of the old school, as they say, and we shall probably never see his like again. He published relatively very little, but he imparted much: It was thanks to him that I can merrily read Chaucer or Hoccleve in the original without much of a problem—an essential life-skill.

Do you own any rare history or collectible books? Do you collect artifacts related to history?

I accumulate books and artifacts mostly relating to material I’m working on. So, over the years I’ve put together collections of medieval illuminated pages, an unwholesome number of memoirs by obscure 1930s British Cabinet ministers, bits of the Hindenburg and various pieces of airship memorabilia, eighteenth-century swords, and so on. My hobby is scouting antiquarian bookstores and auctions for interesting ephemera. So I’ve purchased a mostly first-edition Gibbon, historical works by Lord Bolingbroke, that kind of thing.

What have you found most rewarding and most frustrating about your career?

In terms of reward, I enjoy the freedom that comes with being an independent writer: I don’t have a boss, I don’t have to attend meetings, I don’t have to apply for fellowships (not that anyone would give me one), I don’t have to butter up the dean, I can write when and whatever I want, I don’t have students rating my performance (I’d really hate to see the results . . . ). In terms of frustration, I think having your work-of-genius reviewed by an imbecile or seeing a really poorly researched or written book selling millions is up there. But I imagine those are complaints common to academics, as well.”

How has the study of history changed in the course of your career?

Being an old duffer, I’m not up on what the kidz r learnin’ these days, but there’s obviously a lot less emphasis on hardcore diplomatic and political history and much more on gender and racial studies.

If you could sum up world history in one word, what would that word be? Why’d you pick it?

I’ll give you two for the price of one: complicated and ambiguous. That’s what makes history interesting.

What is your favorite history-related saying? Have you come up with your own?

I think I’ve borrowed/stolen this from one of Trevor-Roper’s letters, but “Easy Reading Means Hard Writing” is useful. You need to sand, hone, and polish your sentences so that they can be understood by a reasonably intelligent reader the first time he or she reads them. Obliging people to read a sentence twice or thrice for mere comprehension is a criminal act on the part of the historian. Clarity is everything. That doesn’t necessarily entail simplicity, but that’s where style, wit, and insight come into their own.

What are you doing next?

I’m writing a book about the airship age. For forty years, these vast craft sailed the ocean of the air and yet, owing to the dominance of the airplane, their history (aside from a certain, ahem, well-publicized explosion) has been completely overlooked. It’s an amazing subject.

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