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Cornelius Ryan

Discussion in 'The Library' started by Roel, Jun 18, 2005.

  1. Roel

    Roel New Member

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    As a new kind of thread, I'd like to discuss the value of this popular historian as a source on WW2, and the readability of his books. Since this man's books are widely read and the movies made of them widely seen, I think this is one of those authors many people may have many developed views on.

    Essentially what you get when you read Ryan is, in all three books, a description of the central event's prelude from a command level, then a description of the event from the soldier's level with details of command added. Personally, I think one of the downsides of his books is that his style is elaborate and uninviting: his pages are often filled with little more than incoherent listings of eyewitness reports strung together by their chronological order only. However, as far as I know he is consistently right about the events he describes, about the way things happened and about the facts he presents. Thus perhaps a bit of a difficult writing style to plow through is a small price to pay for the facts you get to know, and the fact that his books show the events through the eyes of normal soldiers as well as the highest generals he could still interview for his books.

    Apparently contrary to what Hollywood thought, I think his account of the battle of Berlin ("The Last Battle") is the best of his works. Instead of a description of what is essentially a local, if crucial, operation (Overlord and Market-Garden), "The Last Battle" is really a description of the end of the road for Germany in the military sense. It shows how the German supreme command was a heap of madmen commanding armies that barely existed; how voices of reason within this heap got nowhere with their objective descriptions of the situation; and how Germany's remaining field generals were left on their own in their desperate situations without being able to count on anything coming their way. It also puts an emphasis on the way Stalin abused the rivalry between Zhukov and Rokossovski to make them both advance faster! And beyond this command level reality, we get the civilian reality and the soldier's reality: the situation in Berlin before the final battle, and how the Berlin civilians lived through that disaster, among other things. A very good book, better in my opinion than The Longest Day or A Bridge Too Far because of its greater scope and less common field of inquiry. More people should read this one.

    What do you think?
     
  2. canambridge

    canambridge Member

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    I actually find his books quite readable, almost too much of a novel, or oral history approach. I agree with you about "The Last Battle' being his best, althought "The Longest Day" isn't far off. I can't honestly think of any errors I've noticed in his books (more than I can say for John Keegan).
    One of the things I like best about his books is that he gives views from both sides and tries to make all participants human.
     
  3. fsbof

    fsbof Member

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    Ryan was one of the early writers to focus on the "oral history" approach to writing about World War II (or at least 3 of its major battles). I find his books very readable and enjoyable, conveying as they do the experiences of the participants - both military and civilian, as was noted. As military history, they lack the depth and scope of a well-researched discussion and analysis of historical events. However, that's not what his books aim to be - it's like finding fault with a plow horse because he can't qualify for the Derby.
     
  4. Cholbert

    Cholbert New Member

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    fsbof said
    Well said, I agree with you on this, though I believe it is not necessarily his intention to give an in depth analysis, more an overall view of events. That he used so much oral history is to his credit given that it effectively precedes other historians increased usage of it (In other words I think he was before his time in this i.e he set the trend, you only have to see Ambrose' books to see the effect). One thing about his books is that I found they made me look around for more information/other books on the subjects, that would give, perhaps, a more detailed account.


    "My pennies worth"
     
  5. Tom phpbb3

    Tom phpbb3 New Member

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    I think that by using his oral history approach, he wasn't so much trying to give a military analysis, or anything technical like that. Instead, I think he did a very good job of letting you know what happened, rather than why or how. By showing so many levels, one could see how a command decision impacted on the troops and civilians involved.

    There are plenty of technical reviews and studies. With Ryan, I think we all get as close as we can to talking to the survivors.
     
  6. Roel

    Roel New Member

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    You are all correct, his books are no in-depth analyses but they are good works to read nevertheless. I have myself usually approached them as an eye-opener to new topics, because of the wide scope of events and levels of events that the books describe; if there's something of your interest among his works (which I can barely imagine there isn't) then you can look for more detailed works afterwards.

    However, I stand by my opinion that oral history is often hard to read, for one thing because of the enormous amount of characters you end up with. For example you may find yourself desperately trying to remember where you read about Private Smith before, as he reappears in chapter 14. Or something like that. Obviously you will get every bit of the experience of Private Smith that a book could ever give, but in the end the man has about two lines in the entire book before they move on to Private Johnson.
     

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