When I joined the History Book Club a few years ago I jumped at the opportunity to get four free books just for joining. After quickly pouncing on my freebie selections What the Gospels Meant and Where Have All the Soldiers Gone, the other two books sat untouched in my library for what seemed like forever. Finally, one evening I picked up one of them, Charles King’s The Ghost of Freedom: A History of the Caucasus and started reading it. Then after a few days I became distracted by some cool book I happened to find at the library and promptly sat King’s book aside. And there it sat for several months while I busied myself with at least a half-dozen other books. Finally, last week or so I knuckled down and finished King’s book. Generally speaking, I’m glad read I read it. However, I have good things and bad things to say about The Ghost of Freedom.
First the good things. There’s probably no better book out there that covers the history of the Caucasus region. The extends to not just the political history that one would expert from a book like this, but also how the region was perceived in the popular imagination of travel writers, poets, filmmakers and adventurers. In addition, the book feels incredibly researched. Based on these reasons, there’s much to like about King’s book.
Then there’s the bad. While I don’t consider King a bad writer by any stretch, there’s something about the flow of his book I just didn’t like. Sometimes it feels too dense, like he’s trying to pack too much information into a book this size. Like a painter trying to paint a masterpiece on too small a canvas, the final product, while still impressive and peerless, nevertheless feels crowded and busy. The Ghost of Freedom yearns for the skilled hand of a careful editor who could have transformed the text into a tighter and therefore more aesthetically pleasing book.
But all is not lost. Reading King’s 2008 book has inspired me to read other books that deal with this region in some way or another. David Fromkin’s A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East has been sitting unread on my shelf for far too long and needs to be read. (Plus, I could read it for Helen’s Middle East Reading Challenge.) I’ve also been wanting to read Caroline Finkel’s Osman’s Dream: The History of the Ottoman Empire as well as Justin Marozzi’s Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World. So if a book, no matter how flawed, inspires me to read more, trust me, it’s never a bad thing.