I’m an unlikely reader for a book about history’s greatest military strategist.
When I read War and Peace, I thought about skipping whole chapters. Life is short, and military history doesn’t interest me. Even without the war chapters, that novel is long enough.
For example, you might have caught me passing over Book 2, Chapter 14. It begins:
Prince Bagration, having reached the highest point of our right flank, began riding downhill to where the roll of musketry was heard….
Bagration, flank, and musketry…I might not even finish the sentence.
So, I had a hunch that I was the wrong audience for Andreas Kluth’s book Hannibal and Me: What History’s Greatest Military Strategist Can Teach Us about Success and Failure.
Mr. Kluth’s book has a natural audience. I’ve seen it. My son’s face lit up at the mere mention of Hannibal, and the bright orange book in my lap instantly started a conversation with the man sitting next to me on the plane last week. (There’s a tip for single women in all of this.)
For me, though, Hannibal is just Bagration on an elephant.
But a wonderful thing happened when I read Book 2, Chapter 14 of War and Peace. (I didn’t skip it; I just thought about it.) At some point after Bagration famously rides down the hill, a human story replaces History. Young Nikolai Rostov is knocked off his horse. He sees French soldiers running toward him and he wonders what they could want from him. Could they be coming to kill me?, he thinks incredulously. Me, whom everybody loves?
I like that bit. At that moment, I understood Nikolai Rostov, or, rather, Tolstoy understood me, and chapter 14 of Book 2 might have been called Nikolai and Me.
So, maybe there’s a future for Hannibal and me.
About 100 pages into Hannibal and Me, in a chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, Mr. Kluth imagines a conversation between Hannibal and his Greek tutor, Sosylus. Sosylus is prodding Hannibal to recognize that his winning tactics might not be in the service of a clearly defined strategy. Hannibal struggles to identify what he wants out of the war with Rome. We struggle to believe that Hannibal (Hannibal, whom everybody loves?) might have screwed something up.
The next part got Mr. Crotchety’s attention. Mine, too. (I should be any less discerning than Mr. C?) Sosylus suggests that in order to defeat Rome, Hannibal might need to think about where its center of gravity lies:
I have a friend in Syracuse, Archimedes, the best mathematician among the Greeks. He showed me once how to move any object, no matter how large, by identifying its center of gravity and then shifting it by use of a lever.
OK, Mr. Crotchety is right: it’s a cool idea, this center of gravity. But for me, the idea of an imagined conversation is even cooler.
It’s all made up, this exchange between hero and tutor. Pure fancy. And it was the turning point in the book for me. This is where footnotes stopped distracting me and I settled in to read a story about people. Hannibal, you might say, having reached the highest point of our right flank…and so on…became human. He outgrew Bagration and was as real as the fictional Nikolai Rostov.
There’s a lot of talk in Hannibal and Me about how we construct stories about our lives. We demand stories. We’ve got to have them. It’s sort of a reader’s center of gravity. Writers who recognize it move us and conquer.