Thursday, January 6, 2011

My favourite non-fiction book of all time

Confession time: I was a geeky kid who used to sit and read the Encyclopedia Brittanica for fun. Really.
I spent many hours in my teen years, in front of the TV with an encycopedia open on my lap, sometimes just browsing, sometimes jumping from article to article. Actually not much different from the way I surf the internet these days!

I find most non-fiction very dry to read. You have to be interested in the subject matter (or be truly bored!) to persevere. But there is one non-fiction book that I have read over and over. I know the stories contained in its pages intimately, but sometimes I'll just dip into it and read a few pages just for pleasure.

I was still in my early teens when I bought the book second hand in a tiny independent bookstore, and its fabric cover still smelled of the previous owner's pipe tobacco. My whole reason for buying it was because it contained a picture of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, nicknamed Sissi, a role played by the actress I was named for, Romy Schneider.

The book is Dorothy Gies McGuigan's The Habsburgs. It covers over five hundred years of European history, focussing on one of the most influential dynasties of all time: the Habsburgs, who came out of obscurity in central Europe (Austria) to conquer most of Europe through marriage. First The Netherlands, then Spain and Hungary, vast tracts of Italy and the title of Holy Roman Emperor into the bargain.

But what I love most about this book aren't the stories of power and politics, which is what most non-fiction books would dwell on. It's the small personal stories that the writer tells with such emotion that the reader can't help but be drawn in. Stories like that of Juana the Mad, queen of Castile, obsessively in love with her Habsburg husband, who is known to history as Philip the Handsome. After his death, she decided to have his body moved to the royal crypt at Granada:
She started southward in a great funeral cortege, the coffin on an open bier before her carriage, journeying only at night by the light of torches, for, she said, "A widow who has lost the sun of her own soul should never expose herself to the light of day."
Is it just me, or is that really moving?

If you ever stumble across this book, give it a read. And if you're a romance writer then like me, you might just find inspiration within its pages.


  1. Romy, had to say Happy New Year for 2011 and also that I share your encyclopedia love. Britannica (as an ex librarian) is awesome! The best though are dictionaries. Love reading old edition dictionaries, especially the Oxford with its word history... can take the librarian out of the library but...:-)

  2. Love the image of you with the Britannica in your lap -- or perhaps surrounding you in piles as you drift from volume to volume. :-)

    I'm working myself up to dump the set of World Books, but I'm NEVER letting go of my 1910 edition of the Britannica...