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Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill, and My Mother

This uneven collection of essays highlights Schama’s charm but tries to cover too much ground.

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Schama’s writings on American politics were frequently partisan to the point of being unfair, and one of his essays on the subject is offensive. “The Civil War in the USA” portrays Midwesterners and Southerners as hicks motivated entirely by “myth” and “irrationality.” Such snobbery and prejudice may be popular among some, but it should not be endorsed by one of the world’s leading academics. This mistake is particularly surprising coming from Schama, who has demonstrated – time and again – his ability to relate to those different from himself.

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That being said, the anthology gives readers an illuminating glimpse of Schama and his work. The essay “A History of Britain: A Response” is particularly instructive in this regard. Here Schama explains choices he made as a historical filmmaker.

In that essay and throughout the anthology, Schama emphasizes the value of quality storytelling in historical scholarship, and – by the end of the book – the reader will better understand how Schama views his profession. No elitist, he believes in popularizing history as much as possible, and, in various essays, he explains why: If history is to remain relevant, he says, it must be expressed in terms the general public can understand and in mediums (like film) that they enjoy.

The finest essays in this collection crystallize around Schama’s thoughts on the role of history and art in society, and those topics should have been the book’s principal organizing themes. Instead, Schama tries to cover too much, including subjects he doesn’t write about well, such as travel. In the same book, he discusses Martin Scorcese, the war on terror, baseball, and too many other subjects to mention. I came away from “Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” wondering: Why were these particular essays put together? With more revision and concision, this book might have been a coherent whole but, as it stands, it is a hodgepodge.

Yet this collection has a saving grace: Schama’s charm. Despite occasional narrative gaffes such as overlong digressions and obscure allusions, on the whole Schama’s disarming wit makes it difficult to dislike him. This is particularly true of his cooking essays, which are consistently engaging. Take this quote as an example:

“I knew it was unfair to recruit my kids as fellow gastro-explorers in the name of principled eclecticism. Small children are nature’s little conservatives. They are warmed by fulfilled expectations. They have favourites in the kitchen – and why deny them?”

“Scribble, Scribble, Scribble” delivers many pleasant surprises, including unexpected laughs and eureka moments. In spite of its flaws, it is enjoyable. The key is knowing which essays to skip and which to savor.

Ilana Kowarski is a Monitor correspondent.

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