what I like in historical writing

Simi Valley, in Ventura County, CA: Not that anyone has asked, but these are the history books that I remember reading over the past couple of years, ranked from my favorite down:

  1. The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000 (Making of Europe) by Peter Brown
  2. A Concise History of Russia (Cambridge Concise Histories) by Paul Bushkovitch
  3. October: The Story of the Russian Revolution by China Miéville
  4. SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard
  5. Civil Resistance and Power Politics: The Experience of Non-violent Action from Gandhi to the Present by Adam Roberts and Timothy Garton Ash
  6. Great Soul: Mahatma Gandhi and His Struggle with India by Joseph Lelyveld
  7. China: A History by John Keay
  8. Grand Hotel Abyss: The Lives of the Frankfurt School, by Stuart Jeffries
  9. A Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

I appreciate history that makes arguments, but I like arguments that have limited scope. History isn’t just one event after another. It is definitely not a series of quirky decisions made by colorful characters on account of their personalities. On the other hand, when an author hammers away on a few big explanatory themes, I not only get bored as a reader, but I become skeptical. The past is always too complex for grand explanations.

A good example of an explanatory argument is Paul Bushkovitch’s observation–perhaps it’s been others’, too–that the Orthodox translate scripture into local vernaculars. Thus the Greek Bible could be translated into Old Slavic for Kievan Rus, and the Rus didn’t have to learn Greek. Nor was it necessary to translate other Greek texts into Slavic to complete their conversion. The early Orthodox Slavs thus missed the secular legacy of the classical world that had been so influential in Byzantium, until it started filtering in from the West in the 1600s. This argument helps to define and explain a significant phenomenon without resort to iron laws, inflexible patterns, or inevitabilities.

Because I am a lay reader, I don’t need a large scholarly apparatus or much explicit historiography. But I think I can tell the difference between a book that rests on extensive review of previous research (e.g., Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom) and one that basically just retells stories from chronicles (e.g., John Julius Norwich).

Finally, I like my history to have an ethical sensibility. It should demonstrate concern for the human beings it describes, who should be as diverse as possible. It is an ethical act to recover or reimagine the perspectives of people who would otherwise be forgotten or misunderstood. But I balk at moralizing history: at narrative with a layer of explicit value-judgments rendered by the author.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.