What I've been reading
As a European history enthusiast, you might expect I'd be fascinated by the mountain range that separates the northern, Germanic section of the continent from the southern, Mediterranean section, and you'd be right. The Alps are a crucial component in the history of Europe, from Hannibal crossing them with elephants to Henry IV doing penance in the snow to conquerors descending from the north to plunder Italy. My family also vacationed several times in the Alps, and it's where I learned to ski. The very readable if not terribly deep book is a nice guide to the range.
Beattie divides the book into four sections. The geological section, which comes first, is the shortest, which is fine. Once the origins of the Alps are dealt with, the geological jargon would probably overwhelm the narrative, so Beattie simply skims the surface of how the mountains were formed. The historical section, which is second, is obviously longer, as Beattie zips through pre-historical and Roman times to get to the Middle Ages and the modern day, where he gets a bit more detailed. The history of the mountains is fairly confused, unfortunately, so he can't devote too much time to it. After Charlemagne, the political structure broke down, mainly because successive conquerors found it difficult to cross the mountains. Therefore, the lowlands were subjugated while higher up, people lived on without worrying about who was in charge. The biggest development in the Alpine region was perhaps the Protestant revolution, led by Huldrych Zwingli in Zürich and Jean Calvin in Geneva. Even this didn't touch the highlands, which remained Catholic (well, a patina of Catholicism over older, pagan beliefs). The religious strife helped fracture the political structure even more, so even though Switzerland existed by this time (Beattie goes over the William Tell myth quite well), it was made up of competing cantons, and while the Holy Roman Empire technically ruled much of the Alps, small city-states led by Prince-Bishops and Margraves and Dukes really controlled the area.
The most interesting section of the book is when Beattie examines the Alps in the imagination, beginning with Ludwig II and his fanciful creation, Neuschwanstein. The fairy-tale castle is the most obnoxious expression of the Alpine mindset from the 18th century onward, which began to see the mountains as an enchanted place, but not one to be feared (as had been the case for centuries before), but one to be embraced. Everyone who writes about Newschwanstein seems to think it's tacky. I've been there, and although I was only 6-7 years old (I can't quite remember), I still thought it was an impressive achievement. I can understand why people think it's tacky, but it's still a sight. Beattie springboards from Ludwig's madness to how the Alps have been perceived throughout the ages, from a place where dragons lurked and the weather was alive and malevolent to something to be sought for solace and quietude. He brings in the familiar people who helped popularize the Alps as a destination - the Romantic poets Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley most notably - and ends up with the Nazis, who believed that the mountains promoted a true Aryan lifestyle. Finally, in the final section he looks at the Alps as a tourist destination. This is not the most compelling section of the book, but Beattie does a decent job with it. He ties it in with the previous section, in that it took a perception shift by the populace to convince people to tour the mountains. As someone who has visited the Alps several times, it's far more fun to actually visit than to read about visiting. But maybe that goes without saying.
As I mentioned above, it's not a terribly deep book, but Beattie has a nice engaging style and he keeps things moving along. He has a good eye for anecdotes and debunking myths, which is always appreciated, especially as this is a "cultural" history and not a hard core historical survey. The biggest disappointment in the book is a lack of maps. Beattie writes about many, many places that are not necessarily famous (I suppose everyone should know where Geneva, Zürich, Bern, and maybe Innsbruck are, but maybe not), so I had to read the book with my atlas next to me, and even then, some places were too small for it. I love maps, of course, so maybe I feel the need for more of them than would be necessary, but even a large general one at the beginning would have been appreciated. Oh well.
The Alps is a quick way to get a crash course on a place everyone should visit at least once. The United States has the Rockies, but even those mountains aren't quite as impressive as the Alps, mainly because of the layers of history that go along with the scenery in the European range. So you can read this book, then book your next vacation, and learn to ski at St. Moritz! It's all coming together!