I was in the bookshop to attend the launch of The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton, and you know how it is. You attend a book launch and get your book signed. You should be happy with that, but are you? Are you really? No, book lovers can always do with one more book; even when they have no room for them.
By the time I left the bookshop, one book had become four. I read The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare first and thoroughly enjoyed it. I am biased because I have met Milton (he is a very friendly man!) but I can say with absolute honesty that he really knows how to tell a tale. And when the tale is as good as how Britain fought a ‘dirty war’ against the Nazis during the Second World War then you are in for a rollicking good ride. I thoroughly recommend The Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare to you.
I do not know Edward M. Anson but I am going to be even more effusive in my praise of Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues. For two reasons,
1/ Anson cites his sources in his text. I love Peter Green’s and Robin Lane Fox’s biographies of Alexander. I think they’ll always be my modern ur-texts but I really appreciate having a book where the author goes to the effort of telling me there and then his source for the statement he has just made. Well, I’m being unfair to Green, Lane Fox and others like them: they are writing popular histories and including sources would break the story up so really Anson’s book is a compliment to theirs rather than being better.
2/ The whole of Themes and Issues is a conversation with the five major sources of Alexander’s life and – especially this – modern day historians. On one page we find Anson disagreeing with Ernst Badian over this, and then on the next agreeing over that. Reading this book was like being in a lecture theatre again, and it was very exciting.
In light of the above, I am really grateful to have found this book just three years after its publication as it means I now own an up-to-date scholarly work. At least, I hope so. That’s a problem with living outside academe and not being an independent scholar: with no access to the academy you are always likely to be ten steps behind whatever the professionals are saying. I don’t even know of any academically minded Alexander blogs.
Alexander the Great: Themes and Issues isn’t perfect. There are mistakes within the text and I didn’t find the book to be a visually easy read. Anson’s text is by no means impenetrably dense but is just heavy enough for me to wish that Bloomsbury had printed the book in a slightly larger format with the text more widely spaced.
Because Themes and Issues is a more academic work I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone wanting to read about Alexander for the first time. Green, Lane Fox and the other popular historians are the perfect place to start. But once you have polished them off, Edward M. Anson’s book absolutely deserves to be in your hands and on your shelf. It has sources and good insights; it doesn’t just talk about but discusses. It is a very rewarding read.