This weekend, at a truly enjoyable fundraiser, I met several newcomers to Becoming Charlemagne, as well as a few people who had already read the book. As we got to chatting, I was reminded of the neatest thing about writing a book in the first place: the author’s obsession, developed over years and often nurtured in solitude, finally becomes a shared point of reference through which readers can look anew at some aspect of the world.
Those readers aren’t always strangers, either. I came home from the luncheon to find that a friend had emailed me the following news item:
San Jose, Calif. (AP) – Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger learned the art of political negotiation in a setting that’s oh so California – soaking in his backyard hot tub. Keynoting a gathering of Silicon Valley business leaders Friday, the Republican governor explained how his wife – former television news anchor Maria Shriver – came to support his 2003 gubernatorial bid.
“We were sitting in the Jacuzzi. I said, ‘Maria, here’s an idea. What do you think about this, me running for governor?'” Schwarzenegger said to peals of laughter. “I said, ‘There’s a recall, there’s only a 2-month campaign. I think we can work our way through this two months and then I’m governor – isn’t that great?'”
After the laughter died down, Schwarzenegger turned solemn.
“In all seriousness, she had tears in her eyes. I had to work on her for 14 days,” Schwarzenegger said. “That’s where I learned to negotiate – bringing Democrats and Republicans together right there in the Jacuzzi.”
“Californian, eh?” my friend writes. “Seems to me Ahnold’s not the first leader of Germanic extraction to practice politics from the tub.”
He’s right. Here’s Einhard on—who else?—Charlemagne:
He took delight in steam-baths at the thermal springs, and loved to exercise himself in the water whenever he could. He was an extremely strong swimmer and in this sport no one could surpass him. It was for this reason that he built his palace at Aachen and remained continuously in residence there during the last years of his life and indeed until the moment of his death. He would invite not only his sons to bathe with him, but his nobles and friends as well, and occasionally even a crowd of his attendants and bodyguards, so that sometimes a hundred men or more would be in the water together.
Last year, during Thanksgiving and Christmas, my family and friends surprised me with their eagerness to talk about the conflicts of Charlemagne’s era, the culture of medieval Baghdad, and the cruelty of the Byzantine empress Irene. Maybe this year, inspired by historical parallels, we can debate a more urgent proposition: whether Karolus Magnus, for all his scholarly advisers, would have been able to pronounce the word “gubernatorial” without sounding just a little bit silly.