Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Trees must still die -- Books of interest on Western History

When you look around online, you can find an awful lot of information about any subject, and the history of the American Western Frontier is no exception. And, as is true of most other subjects researched online, a huge percentage of what you will will find is utter bullshit, salacious crap and mind-blowingly shallow, simplistic, and/or unsubstantiated nonsense. A good bit of it is just the same old shit being being copied and regurgitated from one half-ass source to the next.

How do you tell the difference between the swill and the good stuff?

In a lot of ways it's just like how you judge books: you look to see if there is documentation, you look at what sources are cited, you get to know who to trust and who is blowing smoke up your ass, and you eventually get used to relying on your instincts. But ultimately, judging information and interpretation of information--whether it comes to you in electronic or printed form--still requires that you spend time looking at a lot of books. Real, honest-to-god, dead tree publications. Which is why, as a public service (and to earn freebie points to get more books for myself), I have entered into the "Associates" program which enables me to put widgets on This Here Blog that will highlight publications that you might find enlightening or just plain fun.

This concept hadn't occurred to me until I saw this being done over on the blog of the exquisite and consistently interesting Emilly Orr, and as I have always been one who enjoyed cobbing a good idea from my betters, yea and verily, I didst go forth to ape and adapt.

The grand thing about this system is that you get to pick what YOU feel is a good match for your particular brand of e-rant. For Emilly, it's mostly horror books, chocolate, and useful electronic gizmos. Logically for me on this blog, it's mostly going to be books on Western history, including publications that I have read and found useful as source material for my stories and rp in deadwood, and books that I want to read someday because they look intriguing. I also stuck in a slew of titles that I just happened to find while perusing Amazon, and thought that they might have potential to be useful and somebody ought look at them.

This is key--I spent time going through Amazon's voluminous offerings and picked these things out. It's not just the crap that gets automatically generated with the little message that says "a while bunch of other morons who bought this claptrap ALSO pissed away their hard-earned money on these titles, mostly because the cover art included a lady with an immense rack."

Because, just like on the internet, there is a lot of hard-copy ink and paper crap out there as well. As my friends in the military history biz used to say,:

"Any idiot can write a book...and most of them do."

Anyway...I digress.

You will find there are two widgets on the blog:

First of all you will see right below the masthead, a slideshow of some books, DVD's and even a CD that I thought y'all might find of interest. And yes, you will note that the show features some items that are not just pure western history-related, such as "Her Best Shot," Larua Browder's book on women and guns in America (which I found fascinating for obvious reasons), or "Boilerplate," which I have reviewed elsewhere on this blog. Mind you, I included "Boilerplate," along with the Leonard Bernstein CD of Aaron Copland's (mostly) western-themed music, and a few great John Wayne classic DVD's, just because they are pretty fuckin' awesome. Yeah, the DVD's and the CD aren't exactly source material, but goddammit, they sure as hell can get you revved up for some rp fun. And "Boilerplate" just kicks ass, both in concept and execution, and if I can help Paul Guinan and Anina Bennett sell a few more copies of their wacky and delightful book, then by Hecate's drawers, I will do it.

The second widget (not a widget really, more like a big-ass picture and a simple "click here" doodad) is a link to an "a-store" that I created through Amazon (as far as I know the "a" in "a-store" stands for Amazon, and not the usual things which are, of course, running through all your sophomoric humor lobes right now). You just click there, and it will take you to this collection of books that you can peruse and purchase--books that include some of the same ones I put in the slideshow--such as historian Watson Parker's works on 19th century Deadwood and the Black Hills, which are pretty much the freakin' non-bullshit bibles that serve as the foundation for doing rp in the Deadwood sim. I have also included some of Cathy Luchetti's books in both places.

I really like Cathy Luchetti--mostly what she does is collect stunning and intriguing and evocative historic images and use them to illustrate and supplement stories of western women, told in their own words, with a minimum of editorial mucking about. I am particularly fond of her chapter in the book "Women of the West," regarding Helen Wiser Stewart, a Nevada ranch wife of the 1870s-90s who took over running a ranching operation after her husband was murdered. It's great primary source material that contradicts an awful lot of our assumptions about life and gender in the old west. And it also gives us some other interesting insights, such as the fact that many ranches employed Native Americans as hands. And because these rely heavily on actual diaries, letters and personal memoirs written by genuine 19th century people of various socio-economic circumstances, they can give you an idea of actual 19th century speech patterns and vocabulary.

In addition to Ms. Luchetti's stuff, I selected a number of the other books specifically because of what they can do to challenge our assumptions:

Books about the U.S. military on the frontier that highlight the roles of infantry, Native American scouts, and the Black regiments, rather than just the white cavalry units;

Books about frontier military posts that show how most "forts" didn't look like the ones in "Fort Apache" or "F Troop," but instead were "open plan," un-walled posts;

Books on archaeology of mining towns and battle sites (specifically Virginia City's saloons, and Custer's defeat at the Little Bighorn), that offer hard evidence about what really happened in these places, rather than what the mythology indicates;

Books like Joe Rosa's attractive and highly readable "Age of the Gunfighter," which documents how the actual level of violence in the West--and how most gunfighters and lawmen actually used their guns--was different from what the movies portray.

I also threw in things like Phil Schreier's book about guns of the old west, because Phil is an ol' friend of mine and goddammit, he's a good guy and it makes me happy when friends sell their books.

A lot of what I included are nice little paperbacks with lots of photos and artwork--you know, the Osprey and GI series books and crap like that. Admittedly, these can be kind of expensive for their length, but hey, you can always buy a used one for cheaper. These provide nice visuals that I think could be of real help to designers of old west stuff in SL, plus they are great as bathroom reading being as they ain't so heavy that your legs are going to fall asleep from supporting the weight of them.

So I encourage you to check out what is offered, and if you have suggestions of other books that you think would be of interest to other people who stumble across this rambling mess, give me a holler.

1 comment:

  1. The last time I sought out and bought a slew of books for this reason was a few years ago (pre-SL) when I ran an online play-by-email Call of Cthulhu game set in 1930s Britain. I needed to know a lot more than I could recall from my distant schooling about modern UK & World history as well as tons and tones of local knowlege about topics as diverse as the history of The Midland hotel in Manchester to the exact make up on the mountains of north Wales and slate mining techniques within.

    You know, I *really* should re-print where we got up to on my blog - I have 3 years of carefully PDFed story (the game wrapped up before the final 2 years - always a problem with PBeM games).