Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Secret History

My approach to reading is a pretty scattergun one, in that I often have a fair few books on the go at once. Some poetry, a novel, some history or natural history, and maybe a biography. It's one of the reasons why, having bought a book, it often takes me ages to get round to reading it.

Another is that I tend to re-read stuff without always really meaning to. Yesterday, to check a half-remembered incident, I picked up my old copy of The Secret History, or Anecdota, by sixth century historian Procopius. I had to read it at university, and I've dipped in once or twice since, but having started last night, I couldn't put it down.

Procopius spent his professional life as a civil servant at the Byzantine court, including writing fawning, obsequious histories of the Emperor Justinian and his general, Belisarius. In the Anecdota, though, he tells you what he really thinks, lashing out at those two and their wives, accusing them of just about every kind of moral degeneracy imaginable.

It's marvellously entertaining, being probably the most sustained character assassination in history, and of course there's a lot of fun to be had in deciding just what is fact and what is exaggeration. And, when I thought about it later, I realised that a lot of the poems I've been writing lately have had a common thread of secret and alternate histories. So, browsing rather aimlessly does have its up-side, at times - it's helped me start planning some direction for what I'm writing.

PS. Of course, there's also The Secret History, Donna Tartt's splendid 1990s novel, which I remember reading practically in one sitting. I must re-read that, too.


Coastcard said...

Did you take any classes in the Classics Dept. - or were all your courses in History? I remember my Later Roman Empire classes in the Percy Building - wish I could remember them better!

I also like to have a mix of fiction, fact and poetry on the go ... and magazines.

Matt Merritt said...

No, it was all early medieval history for me, in the Armstrong Building, (and a bit of political psychology). I think I remember doing Procopius pretty early on, but its stuck with me.

david lumsden said...

I have a similar approach to reading (or should that be 'suffer from the same dysfunction'?), and reading your post thought 'hmm yes, must read Procopius' .. went and put it in my amazon cart, and then thought I'd better just check my list of books (best thing I ever did) .. wham! I own it. Found it on the shelf, obviously untouched, never read, and forgotten. It's now on the to-read pile. Thanks!

Matt Merritt said...

That sounds familiar! I stopped ordering any books while not actually at home for just that reason, David.