A Voyage Long and Tedious

As I’ve mentioned before, history is big and the layers go down forever. The more you read themore you realize how much you don’t know. The narrative you built out of the things you remember from school is full of holes.

Tony Horowitz had a hole moment on a visit to Plymouth Rock. A guide told him that among the top tourist misconceptions (along with the idea that the ten-foot Indian statue is life-sized. What is wrong with these people?) is the conviction that Columbus and the Pilgrims came over on the same boat. And he wondered: what did happen over that century and a half, anyway? So he wrote A Voyage Long and Strange. And I read the jacket copy and thought, hey, good question.

I didn’t get very far. Horowitz came to the project as a journalist rather than a historian. He seems to have assumed, without really thinking about it, that a history writer should travel to places where things happened. So to prepare for his chapters on the Norse he wandered around Newfoundland, and before writing about Columbus he visited the Dominican Republic.

Not that historians don’t travel. But Horowitz isn’t doing original research; he’s digesting already well researched information into a manageable lump for a general audience. So it’s not clear why he’s taking these trips. Occasionally he hits on some insight into how the history influenced the character of these places today, but these insights are rarely deep and his travels are mostly standard magazine-article tourist ramblings.

And he won’t shut up about them. He doesn’t introduce Columbus by describing the present Dominican Republic, or use his trip as a follow up to the history. He jumps back and forth within the same chapter, and can’t seem to get through more than a couple of pages of history at a time. Constantly, just as the book was getting into, say, the history of the Taino, it would stop dead so Horowitz could gripe about the difficulty of renting a car in Santo Domingo. I gave up somewhere during Horowitz’s quest to trace Coronado’s route through empty desert interspersed with a series of modern-day tourist sites. Somewhere in the world may be the perfect book to rectify my ignorance about that century and a half. This isn’t it.