Back in the Day

A trio of history books deliver what most textbooks lack: good, succinct storytelling.

If you are paying attention to the ideas I am trying to express here (I hope they qualify as ideas, and I thank you if you are paying attention), my vexation at the declining attention paid to the study of history is a regular sore spot. I lay the fault for this cultural somnambulism at the deficient pedagogy entrusted with this important task--but maybe it is all merely a little rebranding, the ubiquitous strategy of choice in our brave new world. Let's call history "back in the day," which plays to an important human instinct: the desire to know what happened, especially before.

Anyway, that's what I think history is about. That and good storytelling, which is why three recent books about history have grabbed my attention (when I am not being beaten over the head by Michael Jackson mania or the sex scandals of white Christian politicians). Dangerous Games: The Uses and Abuses of History by Margaret MacMillan (Modern Library), Inventing American History by William Hogeland (Boston Review/The M.I.T. Press), and World War One: A Short History by Norman Stone (Basic Books) are all excellent examples of concision and the attainable skill of being succinct.

Book Cover MacMillan's (Paris 1919 and Nixon and Mao) short text (under 200 pages) investigates how history affects us all:
History is something we all do, even if, like the man who discovered he was writing prose, we do not always realize it. We want to make sense of our own lives and often we wonder about our place in our own societies and how we got to be here. So we tell each other stories, not always true ones, and we ask questions about ourselves. Such stories and questions inevitably lead us to the past...

We use history to understand ourselves and we ought to use history to understand others...History can be helpful; it can also be very dangerous. It is wiser to think of history not as a pile of dead leaves...but as a pool, sometimes benign, often sulfurous that lies under the present silently shaping our institutions our ways of thought, our likes and dislikes.
Peppering her discourse with examples (Robespierre, Leon Trotsky, Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Golda Meir, Mao Zedong, Karl Marx, Henry Kissinger, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, George W. Bush, the Dalai Lama, and Henry "History Is Bunk" Ford) vividly and lucidly makes her uncomplicated point.

Book Cover In his slender tome (132 pages), Hogeland (The Whiskey Rebellion: George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, and the Frontier Rebels Who Challenged America's Newfound Sovereignty) argues that American public history--the stuff of Ken Burns and other documentaries and museum exhibitions--is inclined to celebration (without the kind of scrutiny and careful analysis that inevitably leads to compromised conclusions). To make his point, Hogeland discusses three examples of distorted history--the rehabilitation and revival of Alexander Hamilton; recent tributes to gadfly, activist, and folksinger Pete Seeger and conservative standard-bearer William Buckley; and Philadelphia's Constitution Center--and argues that there are negative consequences in politicizing historiography.

Book Cover Even a brief glance at any bibliography on World War I will show you that there have been countless doorstop-sized tomes written solely on the causes of the war, particular battles, leaders, peace treaties, and on and on. That former Oxford University mentor and historian Stone (Eastern Front 1914-1917) has fashioned a concise 200-page survey is a commendable feat of clarity, bringing readers to the (inevitable) conclusion that the great disaster of the Great War's end was that the Germans did not think they had been defeated. They had been, as General Ludendorff parroted, "stabbed in the back" by you-know-who. So the conflict that lead to 14 million deaths and 20 million wounded became a temporary cessation of hostilities.

And so it went.
blog comments powered by Disqus