Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Buy Two Get Some Drivel Free

1434 by Gavin Menzies (Harper Collins) 2008
I blame Waterstone's and their wretched 3 for 2 offers. You find a book you half fancy and discover it is part of a 3 for 2 offer. You think you might as well see if there is a second book that would help make up the triptych, and - guess what - there is that illustrated history of Mongolian horse brasses that the Observer raved on about last Sunday. So all you need now is a third, and you can be really adventurous about the choice because it is what they call on Match of the Day a "free header". They seem to have a big pile of these chunky red books and they are obviously selling very well and it has diagrams, pictures and footnotes. Well, why not?
It is thus that I acquired a copy of 1421 by Gavin Menzies. It carries the impressive subtitle "The Year A Magnificent Chinese Fleet Sailed To Italy And Ignited The Renaissance" It is from "the international bestselling author" of "1421 : The Year China Discovered America". It is copiously illustrated and comes with a website-full of supplementary material, thirty pages of chapter notes, and a 15 page bibliography. And it is utter drivel.
You don't need to plough your way through 50 of the 370 pages, as I did, to reach this conclusion : the warning signs are there early on. It is written in a strange style which sets out a collection of loosely associated conjectures all of which are accompanied by reference to some relatively obscure text. It avoids both the development of a logical narrative and the construction of a coherent argument. The author constantly backs up claims about this largely fanciful 15th century Chinese fleet by reference to his own experiences as the captain of a Royal Navy submarine in the 1960s which seems a somewhat tenuous accreditation. It stretches even the wildest imagination by making claims that are more ridiculous than fanciful (the Chinese fleet got to Europe by sailing up an early version of the Suez Canal!). It constantly claims that there is a mass of supporting evidence on the website operated by the author and "his team of researchers".  All in all, it is a waste of time, a waste of space and a waste of a "get one free". I blame Waterstone's : not for their 3 for 2 offers, but for stocking this claptrap.

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