Thursday, 7 June 2012

Books about Family Trees

I recently picked up a couple of books about family trees. These books were not offering tips and advice as many of the others in my collection do, but were instead about the personal genealogies of the authors. Neither of the books are particularly recent, but having read both I wanted to write a couple of quick reviews.

The first book is Mad Dogs and Englishmen: An Expedition Round My Family by the famous explorer Sir Ranulph Fiennes. Actually, to give him his proper name, Sir Ranulph Twistelton-Wykham-Fiennes. My first observation of this book is that I'm not sure how much genealogical research was involved. The author quite clearly knew much of his family history prior to beginning writing. The landed classes often have very detailed and extensive family trees, as much to do with marrying into a suitable family as taking pride in the achievements of ancestors.

This is by no means a criticism of the book, the purpose of which is to tell the stories of the author's ancestors. This he does extremely well. It is remarkable how many of history's important events Sir Ranulph's ancestors have been witness to. The book is really about history rather than genealogy, it just so happens that all of the characters share a common link. To give you some idea of the content of the family tree being discusses, those characters go all the way back to Charlemagne in the ninth century.

I really enjoyed this book. It shows just how interesting family trees, and history in general, can be.

The second book I read, whilst entertaining, was not as enjoyable as the previous. It is My Family and Other Strangers: Adventures in Family History by Jeremy Hardy. This book is much more about the ins and outs of conducting family history research, and that ironically is why I didn't enjoy it as much. Jeremy Hardy is a comedian by profession, and I felt that he didn't treat the subject with the respect it deserves. Throughout the book his attitude is one of condescension, and he seems to view the research as a chore. I'm not being precious about this, he's got every right to find genealogy less interesting than I do, but it doesn't make for a particularly good book about family history.

Perhaps I'm being a little unfair, as the book is well written, and the journey to discover the author's past does make for a good narrative. I just wish he would have enjoyed that journey a bit more.

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