Wednesday, February 18, 2009

1421: A Note on Notes, Part 2

Truth be told, I hate end notes. Yeah, it's way easier to figure out how much work an author put in to the notation process, but most people aren't using the notes like I used them in my previous entry. Notes are usually used to help confirm that the author did his or her work and to offer transparency. End notes break up the narrative, since reading them requires flipping to the back of the book. Still, they seem to be popular these days. If there are footnotes, I almost always read them. I barely ever read end notes. What's my point? Nothing, really. I just felt like bitching. Either way, I'm on the subject of notes. They're important. I've already said that Menzies leaves much to be desired in the notes section of 1421. I must admit that what few notes he offers are decent enough in quality. The bigger problem, though, is his reason for letting us know so little about his studies. The information, you see, was destroyed. Destruction of information happens all the time. One of the worst events in the history of the human race, for instance, was the destruction of the great library of Alexandria, wherein pretty much all of the knowledge of the classical European world could be found. Conquest also often leads to destruction on a smaller scale, as a new ruler tries to erase all record of the previous regime. Religion, too, plays a role. For instance, we have precious little information about pre-Columbian Central and South American cultures due to a systematic attempt by Spanish priests to destroy the pagan images of the peoples who lived there. Menzies, however, formulates a somewhat less believable destruction of records. He instead believes that changing attitudes towards outside contact in China caused an edict to destroy all records of the Chinese voyages to the New World. They did not, however, find it necessary to destroy records of Zheng He's voyages in to the Indian Ocean, all the way to the east coast of Africa and in to the Red Sea, which would have gone against the desires of a suddenly inward focused government. And so we get to the issue of sources and the quality of notes.
Commanding fleets carrying over twenty thousand men, Cheng-ho [Zheng He] cruised as far as Jeddah on the Red Sea and the East African coast, and made China's presence felt in Sri Lanka, whose recalcitrant ruler was carried off to Peking.
This is from John Darwin's After Tamerlane. Over the course of the roughly two pages he gives to the voyages and subsequent closure of China to the larger world he offers four different sources in his end notes, including one that specifically offers a newer perspective, since two of his sources were written in the early seventies. He offers a couple additional suggestions in his Further Reading section. Sadly, I fear that I'll find it necessary to track at least a couple of those sources down before all is said and done. It's also worth noting that Darwin wrote After Tamerlane in 2008, six years after the original British release of 1421, and yet does not even acknowledge the Menzies book. There are sources as recent as 2006 in his end notes (and, possibly, newer. I just took a quick flip through and saw a lot of 2002s, '03s, '04s, '05s and a couple of '06s). Of course, acceptance or rejection by the larger community does not in and of itself tell us whether or not something happened. Historical fact does not require belief, after all. However, historians are a curious and argumentative bunch and have a tendency to incorporate new ideas or interpretations in to their research quickly and argue the merits of new ideas strenuously. The complete lack of the 1421 theory in a book that deals largely with the consequences of Chinese isolationism on world history and the boon that the resources of the New World eventually provided the European imperial powers is quite damning. As to the quality of Menzies' notes, I find them lacking. Most sources are old but not old enough to be primary sources. A lot also seem to be in place to support a tangential point. This, I suppose, requires explanation. The lazy or hurried student of history has a tendency to cut corners. This most often happens when the student can't be bothered to actually go back to the library to pick up a better source or gets halfway through the paper and realizes that he or she has picked a bad topic. The most obvious way to deal with this problem without having to actually work is to quote sources that have nothing to do with anything and, therefore, create a bibliography of one-off, random sources. Since profs will usually ask for, say, twenty sources in the bibliography and require the use of fifteen, this can be used as padding. So you'll end up with a bibliography of, say, nineteen books on antebellum slave trade practices and a biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. because there was just a whiz-bang quote that the student used in his introduction. Menzies, of course, doesn't have a professor and a grade book hanging over his head. He does, however, have the burden of presenting his findings as rigorous history. This can easily lead to padding. As I kept looking at the notes something just didn't seem right. There were notes and they were largely okay if I looked at them in isolation. I kept cherry-picking little annoyances, like a tendency to list personal letters, the one note that cites In Search Of... (seriously, I love In Search Of... and wish it was still on. It's not exactly the sort of thing that I'd turn to as source material, though), and the one where Menzies explicitly states that he could not have written an entire chapter without this one specific source, yet draws a completely different conclusion than the one the authors of his source book drew. Eventually I realized I was missing the forest for the trees and took a step back. The notes themselves are a problem. As someone who has seen a lot of good notes sections, written a couple, and padded more than a couple bibliographies, I know what a notes section should look like. 1421's notes section simply looks wrong. If you handed me the seventeen pages of notes without any context or book title, I strongly suspect that I wouldn't be able to tell you what the book is about. His sources are simply all over the map (no pun intended). To be fair, I would be hard pressed to tell you what After Tamerlane is about, but that's also a book that attempts to encapsulate six hundred years of world history in to five hundred pages. Give me the notes from, say, Six Frigates or In the Hands of Providence and I'd be able to say what those books are about. Menzies isn't attempting to write After Tamerlane, he's writing about a fairly narrow topic that allegedly took place over the course of a few years. His entire premise that the Chinese destroyed every single record is, in and of itself, suspicious. We know of the great treasure fleets and we know that they sailed in the Indian Ocean and as far as the Red Sea. We also know of hundreds of years of Chinese interaction with the Middle East and Europe across the Silk Road. It's hard to believe that a new found isolationist policy would ruthlessly destroy every single record of this one voyage and leave intact information about so much of the rest of China's interactions with the world. In fact, we have a good analog to Menzies' postulation with Japan, which did close itself almost completely off from the world for centuries. I once read a book called The Russian Push Toward Japan: Russo-Japanese Relations, 1697-1875 by a guy named George Alexander Lensen that covered Russia's attempts to break open Japan, a much smaller, more isolated, and controlled island nation. The shoguns were incapable of suppressing knowledge of the outside world and were, in fact, more than willing to accept any information any Russians who actually managed to make it ashore could offer. China isolated itself largely because of economic realities, not the sheer xenophobic force of will exhibited in Japan. They really had no vested interest in destroying information about the outside world. Furthermore, China has been a land of bureaucrats pretty much forever. One of the best and worst things about bureaucracies is that they have a habit of leaving extremely long, detailed paper trails that are filled out in triplicate. I'm not saying it's impossible that China systematically destroyed every last bit of data. I'm not saying there's absolutely no way Gavin Menzies is correct. I am, however, saying that it's extremely unlikely. I'm also questioning his research and sources, and if you can get a supposed historian at the source (incredibly bad pun intended), you completely undermine the credibility of his conclusions. Meanwhile, I've left off a huge chunk of the notes in 1421, namely the 116 pages worth of appendices. There's a simple reason for this. I have no idea what the hell either appendix is supposed to be saying. This is not altogether uncommon, mind you, because it's not always immediately obvious why you'd need to read a half-dozen pages about relative densities and hardnesses of North American woods until you get to the chapter devoted to 18th Century shipbuilding techniques. But there should be some point where you say, "A ha, now I know why that's there." I don't see it happening here. Most of Appendix A, which is 104 pages long, is comprised of sentence fragments that don't seem to be connected to anything in the rest of the book through some sort of, say, notation system. They're also largely statements built around the notion that *this* sentence fragment says the idea is true, so the idea is true. And they're usually preceded or followed by a statement about how there's more information to be had on the official website. Now this bothers me. It bothers me a great deal. It's not a hard and fast rule, but an appendix is usually supposed to be given over to supplemental information that simply has no place in the body text. If an author is simply using an appendix as an additional place to assert that he or she is right, the author is doing it wrong. That's what the rest of the book is for. Moreover, the constant references to the website bug me. See, there's a reason that historians put information in to books and offer their sources with specific dates. It's so that anyone with sufficient desire can go and find that source and decide for themselves whether or not the author is being honest with the data. We also put appendices in to the books themselves as a record of what, exactly, the author was looking at for whatever the appendix is supposed to support. Sending the reader to the author's website completely undermines that entire process. The content of a website can change at any time for any reason. So an appendix that offers a garbled statement of circular logic then says, "Go check out the website!" is not a trustworthy source.* That should just about do it for the notes. I'm planning on making this a Saturday or Sunday thing and maybe calling it "High Seas Saturdays" or "Stupidity Sundays." Let's see how long that lasts, given my tendency to not post at all on weekends. I give it two weeks. ___________________ *A friend of mine who thinks about such things also pointed out that the website is a perfect place to get a lot of readers to sign up for the electronic newsletter, then make a quick buck selling the mailing list. I don't know that this is a motivation and wouldn't presume to make such an accusation, but as long as the possibility of ill-gotten gain is on the table it offers a further reason not to trust ol' Appendix A up there... EDIT: Forgot to block out the Darwin quote. Oops.


PersonalFailure said...

Your friends theory on the website was almost the same as mine- ad revenue. Can't get people to click on ads in a book.

I'm getting this sort of feeling about this book:

"I did too go to the land of the faeries, and they gave me a necklace as proof, but then a banshee stole it right before I got here"

Geds said...

That's probably a good feeling to have.

I actually have objections to the way he formulates the Introduction. That's not something that's ever happened before...

Stinger said...

I agree with you about footnotes vs. end notes.I'm sure the latter style is a much easier way to lay out a book, but it's far less likely that I will read them.