Books interview: Felipe Fernández-Armesto

Vespucci, French military glory and recondite legal strategies: bibliographic confessions from the author of A Foot in the River: Why Our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution

November 5, 2015
Felipe Fernández-Armesto

What was the first book that captivated you as a child?
I guess whatever was read to me in the cradle: probably, given the proclivities of my household, it was a mouldering, 19th-century edition of The Family Doctor, the illustrations of which I still recall vividly (as well as the descriptions of such delightfully forgotten diseases as Dhobi’s Itch), or [G. D. H. Cole’s] The Intelligent Man’s Guide to the Post-War World, which struck me even as a child as a magnificently condescending title.

I didn’t discover much juvenile literature until I married and acquired access to my wife’s childhood books. Hergé’s The Crab with the Golden Claws impressed me, as did [Robert Louis Stevenson’s] The Master of Ballantrae. I came to admire Enid Blyton as a constructor of character and narrative, and as a subtle if sententious moralist, and realised that librarians who condemned little Noddy as unstimulating can never have read Noddy and the Tootles

The earliest encounter of which the influence is still with me occurred when I was five or six, and my mother returned from a visit to France with a gaudily illustrated present for me: [Paluel-Marmont’s] Pages glorieuses de l’armée française. The battles – especially those the English lost – were all different from those mentioned in English books. I’ve been alert to the distortions of perspective ever since.

Which of your own books are you proudest of?
I hate them all, of course. But I was distressed at the world’s indifference to my biography of Vespucci: Amerigo, the Man Who Gave his Name to America. I was bumptiously pleased when it came out because I made new use of under-exploited sources to conjure – I thought – an astonishing yet true image of the man. But even the kindest reviewers did not seem to notice.

What was the last book you gave as a gift?
In my time I’ve given literally thousands. If you don’t count my own new book (of which I’m shedding copies as fast as I get them from OUP), the last was a rather battered old copy of The Corrector of Destinies by Melville Davisson Post. The recipient was an undergraduate student of mine who wants to be a lawyer. Post’s book is like a serious incarnation of A. P. Herbert’s Misleading Cases in the Common Law: a collection of short stories about a lawyer who discovers recondite ways to make the law serve justice. But he does it cold-bloodedly, in indifference to morality, out of a sheer lust for solving intellectual problems.

Whose book (or body of work) has had the greatest impact on you as a scholar?
Maybe I should go back to Pages glorieuses. But I guess three books I read in my teens account for my inveterate passions. Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy inspired my almost fetishistic anxiety for accuracy, concision, close textual reading and insight. C. P. Fitzgerald’s A Short Cultural History of China made me lust for knowledge of unfamiliar cultures. Herbert Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History convinced me that I would enjoy the life of the mind and that I could practise it without having to truckle to the tiresome orthodoxies of my teachers.

What books are you reading at the moment, or, alternatively, what is on your desk waiting to be read?
The pile on my desk is too vast and embarrassing to enumerate. I always have the prayer book of the Order of Malta at my bedside, and some antiquated work of detective or historical fiction (currently Ellery Queen’s The Murderer is a Fox, which I don’t recommend). My professional reading at present, apart from doctoral work I have to examine, is Frank Trentmann’s brilliant new book Empire of Things, a history of consumer behaviour over the past 500 years, and Javier Moro’s A Flor de Piel, a moving, cunningly evoked novelisation of the history of how the Spanish monarchy transmitted vaccination technique to its overseas territories in the early 19th century.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US. His latest book is A Foot in the River: Why our Lives Change – and the Limits of Evolution (Oxford University Press).

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