Human Wave History or Where have all the Stories Gone? — by TX Red

*I fell in love with reading history when I swiped my brother’s high school textbooks when I was five or six.  But by the time I was in college and reading for my American Culture class, I found myself giggling insanely at how stupid the book — and the stuff we had to read — was.  It was one vast slough of despond with group after group being exploited, dehumanized, etc.  The only way to be well thought of was to lose a war or be exterminated.  Southerners went from being villains to being heroes once they lost the civil war, for instance, to being villains again in the present day.  One couldn’t follow the thing with rationality — at all.  TX Red just explained why.  As with the slough of despond on “literary science fiction” shelves the answer is “because the elites are so childish they think depression makes them sound adult.” — Okay, so TX didn’t say that.  She says far more interesting stuff and better than I can.  We must prevail upon her to guest more often! — Sarah *

 

Human Wave History or Where have all the Stories Gone?

by TX Red

Hi. My name is Red, and I’m a historian. Today’s episode of “As the Pages Turn” is about the Human Wave approach to history.

 

Have you ever looked over the shelves of history books at your local bookstore and scratched you head, wondering why so many older works are still in print, while the most recent award winners vanish within weeks, if they are ever stocked at all? Why is it that a small collection of local stories sells steadily at the county history museum, but the Great Dr. So-and-so’s scholarly monograph about class, gender, and labor relations between Irish and Mexican workers on the local railroad gathers dust?  It’s because people want to read Human Wave history but the majority of current academic historians do not write it.

Barbara Tuchman, Will and Ariel Durant, William McNeil, Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, V. G. Childe, Paul De Kruif, all wrote Human Wave history. David H. Fischer, David McCullough, Anne Applebaum, and Steven Ozment still write Human Wave, even if the Academic Ones sniff at some, if not all, of their work. Which leads to the questions 1) just what is Human Wave history and 2) what the heck happened in the Ivory Tower?

I’ll answer the questions in reverse order. By the late 19th century in England and the United States, a loose consensus later called “the Whig School” of history had emerged as the dominant voice of the academic history field, so to speak. The Whig School held that history was a chronicle of improving life, more civil rights, economic prosperity, and that things were getting better and better, despite a few setbacks (the Thirty Years’ War, the Dark Ages). Then along came the First World War.

The Whig School staggered, but it was not until the 1950s and 1960s that academic history dove head first into the grey goo. Progressives, who had begun moving into the universities in the 1920s, became the leading voices in historical thinking in the 1950s and 1960s. The Marxist approach to history became more and more common and Marxist-derived philosophies from France and Germany and Italy became popular, “cutting-edge,” and trendy. Academia embraced theories that held that all of humanity’s past is nothing more than a struggle for power among groups, with Europeans being the worst oppressors.

At the same time, new subfields of history gained acceptance. Social history, looking at customs and cultures, became stronger in the 1940s and 1950s. Computers made population studies and statistical history (“Cliometrics”) possible. In the 1970s, the environmental movement encouraged the development of environmental history. Because young scholars had to either do original work in their field, or refute earlier work, they gravitated towards the new sub-fields. Those changes, plus the 1960s foments in the US and Europe, produced the modern Slough of Despond that is much of academic, post-modern history. At its worst, everyone is either a victim or an oppressor, the world is going to heck in a hand basket, and it’s all the fault of the DWHtEMs.* Instead of political and diplomatic history, the best fields to focus on are “Area Studies” (Women’s Studies, Subaltern Studies, Chicana/o Studies, LGBT or Queer Studies, world without end, amen) or the hybrid interdisciplinary studies. If you ever want to cure a chipper mood, go into a university bookstore and look at the books required for area studies classes. Then cruise over and glance at the books written by the university’s faculty, or browse the “new books” shelves at the college library or in the university press catalogue.

However, Human Wave history survived, in large part outside of academia’s inner circle. Barbara Tuchman never went to graduate school or taught at a university and her works are still read, referred to, and in print. It is a rare professor of US or European history who does not own a set of the Durant’s works, or at least know where he/she/it can find a copy. Academics still look askance at Shelby Foote, even though more people learned about the US Civil War from his books than from any of the thousands of monographs written about the topic. Stanley Vestal was an English professor who wrote history on the side and taught his students how to make money, for Pete’s sake! David McCullough is a popularizer, but he’s worked with Ken Burns so he usually gets a pass.

 

So, what is Human Wave history? In this historian’s view, Human Wave history is history that tells the stories of the past without dragging the reader into despair. A Human Wave historian uses humor, good writing, and a common-sense view of the world to show the reader what happened, then steps out of the way.

Human Wave does not make the past pretty, but it does show how people who got knocked down found ways to get back up. For example, a new book came out last fall about life in Eastern Europe between 1944-1954. The author points out that people found ways to cope with the imposition of Stalinism, carving out pockets of sanity, falling in love, having children, and being ready to regain their freedom when opportunity presented itself. The light kept burning despite WWII and Stalinism, and the historian shows the reader that. The author also did a lot of hard work in archives and conducting interviews, but she writes so well that you don’t see the effort.

Human Wave history can be adventure stories, even if the adventures do not always end well. Several new books about Robert Falcon Scott have recently hit the shelves. Not a happy tale, but still an inspiring one if told honestly. Norman Cantor’s and William H. McNeill’s books about the Black Death, another cheerful topic, draw the reader into the time and show how people endured, then clawed their way towards greater independence and prosperity.

Human Wave does not bore. If you are like me, you’ve tried reading about what sounded like a fascinating topic, only to doze off because the writing style sucked the life out of the past. Some historians maintain that lively writing trivializes the topic, to the extent that a major international university press is infamous for its dull works. No! There’s no excuse for writing grey, gooey history, or science, any more than there is for writing grey, gooey fiction. People can make even water law interesting to read about— not page-turner thrilling, but interesting enough to finish the book. Paul De Kruif’s The Microbe Hunters turned epidemiology and microbiology into a gripping tale for budding scientists.

Human Wave does not induce guilt for being human. Environmental history, my specialty, runs the risk of turning into “humans destroyed paradise” or “Western capitalism poisoned the water, made the soil blow away, and has doomed the planet. Woe, woe.” Human Wave history reminds us that no group of humans ever “lived in harmony with Nature.” What was done in ignorance can sometimes be reversed, or at least ameliorated, through knowledge once someone says, “oops. OK, what can we do to fix/undo/learn from this?”

Human Wave history does not blame the world’s ills on any one group. For example, yes, the Chinese invented a number of things before the West did. The Chinese, for their own reasons, did not take those things and run with them. This is not the fault of the West, nor is it an example of Western cultural imperialism.

Human Wave history does not preach and neither do Human Wave historians. They lets the story tell itself, with some interpretation where appropriate, but not at the expense of the story. Try reading Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Slaves Made and then guessing the author’s politics (no fair peeking). You can’t. Nor can you tell what color, sex, sexual preference, favorite food, or religion (if any) the author had. It’s just a Human Wave story.

So, how do you find Human Wave history? You might look at some of the authors listed above. Find out what is still in print and selling. Ask your librarian what she or he recommends. Find an Odd who reads history for fun and see what they like (or don’t like) and why. Skim the reviews on Amazon, GoodReads, and other sites. What have you got to loose?

 

*Dead White Heterosexual European Males.

 

 

120 responses to “Human Wave History or Where have all the Stories Gone? — by TX Red

  1. I had the great good fortune of going to Florida State University/Canal Zone in 1967-68. My teacher (Richard Chardkoff) had worked for Dr. Catton, and used his books for his classes. I still have them. I found Dr. Chardkoff teaching at Northeast Louisiana State in 1999, and he was still using them, although they’re getting harder and harder to find. Dr. Chardkoff is now retired… definitely one of the Good Guys.

  2. In the fannish community I occupy, I don’t see much romanticizing of the American South, but I do see people who romanticize the Stuart pretenders and the Jacobite cause. Now that strikes me as perverse; by any reasonable standard, the Whigs were the more admirable party, and even the Puritans were in many ways an improvement on the royalists. I find it strange to hear songs that side with the advocates of hereditary monarchy, an established church, a landed aristocracy, and military adventurism from sf fans. . . .

    • It’s the love of losers, which is my post as soon as Noah’s Boy has been put to bed. My family fought on the equivalent of the Jacobite side in the Portuguese civil war. They fought and died for absolute monarchy. I.e. never to have a say in their governance again. Now, mind you, there were regional loyalties and other stuff, but…

      • Why are losers more beloved than heroes? Why are run down unsafe neighborhoods liked better than safe neighborhoods? Why are suburban towns despised?

        • Why are there “sophisticates” bemoaning the “loss of character” in Times Square post-Dinkins?

          Why did the Israelites demand Moses take them back to Pharoah’s land, where they at least ate leeks and onions and fish?

        • Theory: every human remembers being The Underdog. (If nothing else, when one is a child, with everyone else bigger… Even the most spoilt child* is the underdog when Gravity gets into the picture.) Add in fairy tales (third son, idiot Ivan…), and that only reinforces the meme. Therefore, rooting for The Underdog is part and parcel of human instinct.

          Even when the Underdog is something that really should be ground into the muck and have boulders rolled on top to keep it down.

          * I’m talking the Real Deal of “spoilt child” here. Not just indulged, but one who is given no boundaries/responsibilities, but only privileges, such that they feel entitled to be fawned upon at all times. (…my grandmother, reportedly, would leap to bring her Only Son a drink of water, if he expressed the least bit of thirst…)

    • What? You like theocrats?

      ’cause the Puritans really were out to establish a full-blown theocracy — the real thing, not the “theocracy” that leftists have vapors about whenever they face the possibility of having to compromise.

      • The statement “even the Puritans were in many ways an improvement on the royalists” is hardly a wholehearted endorsement. It’s like saying “even Mitt Romney would be an improvement on Barack Obama.”

        I’d also note that it’s hardly as if the Stuart régime the Puritans threw out were secularists or advocates of tolerance. As Neal Stephenson points out in The Baroque Cycle, under their laws England had established churches: You were assigned to a specific church on the basis of your residency. The Puritans replaced this with allowing people to choose their own churches on the basis of theological agreement, which was a step toward greater religious tolerance, if a limited one. In fact, it was in some ways a fairly large step; it was under the Puritans that the Jews were allowed to come back to England, several centuries after Edward I expelled them. Puritan theocracy was not an innovation in England—England was theocratic already—but Puritan reliance on individual conscience, even within the limits the Puritans adhered to, was an innovation, and a first small step toward modernity.

        • I’d like to point out even the cat who can’t tell where my face is would be an improvement on Obama. Even Obama .2 would be an improvement on Obama, because the transition would allow for some confusion and some slow down on leviathan’s effort to control us ever tighter.

          Yes, its’ a side point, but NEVER underestimate a minor improvement on something horrible.

          As for your point on established religion — the idea of NOT being assigned a congregation was shockingly mind-blowing. Every step towards tolerance comes from there.

        • Stoopid Puritans – let an idea that people are not “property of The Crown” get started and it could lead to no end of troubles and disorder.

      • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

        Ah Mary, you should take a real look at the “theocracy” the Puritans created in Mass. From the beginning of it, they had a higher percentage of people allowed to vote than England or the other colonies had. While to vote, you had to be a member of their Church, the vast majority (perhaps close to 100%) of the Adult males were members of their Church.

        They had their bad parts, but I refuse to consider it a “theocracy” when the government was responsible to the vast majority of the people of the society.

        • They had a death sentence for Quakers caught preaching in Massachusetts.

          • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

            Yes, they were intolerant but the *people* ruled Massachusetts not the clergy.

            To say Massachusetts (at that time) was a theocracy is to say that America is a theocracy now.because the majority of voters are Christians.

            Sorry, but a theocracy is rule by clergy/priests. That was not the case with Puritan Massachusetts.

            • To say Massachusetts (at that time) was a theocracy is to say that America is a theocracy now.because the majority of voters are Christians.

              Paul, people like Mary believe we live in a theocracy (or would if not for their eternal fight against the WASP debil) for exactly that reason. The fact that worship of the State is only another theocracy escapes them.

              • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                No. To give Mary due credit, she thinks the Puritans were “real” theocrats unlike the people the Left complains about today. So while I think she’s wrong about the Puritans, she’s on the “right side” otherwise.

                • Guys, let’s not defend the puritans, okay? If you look at how they actually ruled themselves, they had more in common with the communists than us. Yes, my husband is (on one side) descended from them, but the religion changed for a reason. It was untennable as a way of life.

              • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

                Never mind those who worship the US Constitution, or those who worship the British Crown, or worship whatever the equivalent is in their country. And there’s a lot of that going on.

                Wayne

                • Yes, indeed. Thank heavens for Canadians to enlighten us on the unimportance of our foundational principles and general post-national go along to get along. What would we do otherwise? Possibly roam the world, intervening in places like Libya in support of ill defined principles for no good reason whatsoever. Oh, wait!

                  • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

                    Foundational Principles often are treated with religious reverence, which is a really bad idea, no matter whose foundational principle it is. Instead they should be regarded with suspicion.

                    Remember the conversation that Manny had with Professor Bernardo de La Paz in “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” about responsibility? How every decision comes down to one man or woman, and how every system needs to be regarded with suspicion?

                    I do. It was pure Heinlein, at the height of his powers. And dead on right.

                    Yes, I’m Canadian. I treat the Canadian Constitutuon with the same level of respect that I treat the American one. If they have positive affects, I applaud them. If they have negative affects, I excoriate them.

                    Nothing written on paper, stone, clay, or using bytes is worth a damn if it doesn’t have a positive impact on “the people”

                    Wayne

                    • Oh heck yeah! What good are inalienable rights if they don’t have a positive impact on “the people”! Screw individuals, up the collective!

                    • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

                      I’ve always thought this was the worst of all examples, but, consider the Freedom to falsely shout “Fire” inside a crowded theater. I don’t think you should be free to do that, Free Speech or not.

                      And the Supreme Court of the United States agreed with me.
                      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shouting_fire_in_a_crowded_theater

                      The freedom to falsely shout things is not in the best interest of the people, at least in my opinion. You are free of course to disagree.

                      Wayne

                    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

                      What does “falsely yelling things” mean? Canada is “famous” now for attempting to ban “hate speech”. If you say something “bad” about Muslims and/or gays, you might get in trouble in Canada even if what you said is correct.

                    • Actually, in spite of the SCOTUS’ opinion, you are free to falsely shout “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

                      What you are not free from is consequences for your having done so. OTOH, it is highly improbable that you could be successfully prosecuted for so shouting, as a reasonable level of doubt must exist as to whether you actually were the person who shouted and whether you were knowingly doing so falsely.

                      So yes, it probably is the worst of all examples.

                      There seems scant drawback for falsely shouting “Anthropogenic Global Warning” in a crowded globe, for example, and we are readily able to identify those shouting it.

                    • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

                      Got any “Climate Scientists” who’ll back you up on that? I got curious, and when I looked up the scientists who say Anthropogenic Global Warning is not an issue, none of them had the scientific background to make that assertion. Rather like expecting a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine to diagnose issues with a rocket.

                      Wayne

                    • Your research model is flawed. “Climate Scientists” are required to swear fealty to AGW in order to be admitted to the clan, thus their arguments are tautologically invalid. There are plenty of dissenting voices with far better credentials to analyse the data and who are not forced to falsify their analyses (hockey stick my sweet patootie) or withhold their data from independent verification.

                    • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

                      I’ll just refer you to David Brin’s “Arguing With Your Crazy Uncle About Climate Change”, and interesting little piece that covers things quite nicely.

                      http://davidbrin.blogspot.ca/2011/10/arguing-with-your-crazy-uncle-about.html

                    • I am remarkably disinterested in anything David Brin has written in the last several decades. I will see your Brin reference and raise you Jerry Pournelle, Willie Soon, Anthony Watts and James Delingpole. Find your own links to their articles, the quantity exceeds the amount allowed by WP without moderation.

                    • Robin Roberts

                      Wayne, your standards for who can opine upon Climate Science seem quite … malleable. Brin is not a climate scientist.

                    • No, Robin, his standards are quite consistent and fairly rigid: people who agree with Wayne’s view are certified experts on climate science, people who do not share Wayne’s view are NOT climate scientists.

                      An AGW question for Wayne: how many countries have met the emissions targets set in the Kyoto Accords? Which two American senators were instrumental in blocking US signature to those accords and what are they doing now?

                    • On the “climate change” bugaboo – in the 80s it was going to be the next ice age that destroyed us all. As for “Climate scientist” I call bullshit. It’s a soft category with no real meaning. These *ever* so brilliant specimens have only just acknowledged that the activity levels of the giant fusion reactor an eyeblink away from us (astronomically speaking) just might have an impact on the Earth’s climate. I wonder how they explain the climate in the Triassic, when neither pole supported a permanent ice cap? I’d love to know who was behind the “global warming” then. Or who caused it in the Medieval Warm Period (when Vikings settled Greenland and wild vines grew in Newfoundland and so forth – and all the pollen evidence is that it was warmer then than it is now). Are you going to posit time traveling evil doers releasing greenhouse gases or something?

                      Because that, Mr Borean, is the intellectual level of your arguments. All of them are so ridiculous they don’t even qualify as “wrong”. To be wrong, you’ve got to be in the same universe as the correct answer.

          • Virginia gave Quakers a year to get out, then they were also under sentence of death. No Established church likes competition, be they Congregationalist, Anglican, Wahabi, or Atheist (see the USSR).

          • Robin Roberts

            Seems like an overreaction … I mean sure, who like Quakers? But at least they weren’t Methodists.

            • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

              Chuckle Chuckle

              The “funny” thing about the Quakers is that when they started out, they were almost as strange as the early Pentecostals. [Wink]

  3. Much of the trends in History are explicable via Thomas Sowell’s Theory of Moral Preening: the important thing about about my presentation of History is that it reveal me as possessing a higher consciousness, an enlightened viewpoint, a moral superiority which I have earned merely by pointing at the past and crying J’accuse!

    It is not only personally satisfying, it feeds adolescent yearnings to criticize one’s parents of failing to be the all-wise, all-powerful beings your 5-year-old self imagined them to be. It is History as Therapy.

    Similarly, current adulation of “The Greatest Generation,” while ostensibly about praising our parents is actually about criticizing ourselves: they are only “greatest” because we’ve dropped the ball. Not to take anything away from the WWII generation, but they were not significantly “greater” than their parents who built the industrial colossus that enabled their victory over Fascism, nor the generation before that which crossed the plains and unified the continent, nor the generation prior who waged the war which determined (among other things) whether this nation would tolerate slave-holding. Of course, the generation which shaped the colonies into a Republic was no slouch, either, nor was the one before them, who did what no colony had ever done before in declaring and winning independence from the still-vital parent.

    Much contemporary History is premised on the criticism of the past, which implicitly asserts a moral superiority on the critic’s part. It is vanity, it is unearned. It is “Does this History make my butt look fat?”

    Human Wave History is popular because it does not judge the past so much as present it for evaluation. The honest reader will seek to understand the values of the past rather than engage in chronocentrism, the belief that the values we hold presently are and always have been self-evidently enlightened and superior to those of prior ages.

    It took over five thousand years for humanity to collectively decide that slavery is evil, and I doubt more than a few today can articulate an intelligible reason why this is so, relying instead on platitudes and rote denunciation. Certainly the modern view would engender laughter in ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, China, Aztlan or anywhere else, so what — other than being modern — justifies that judgement?

    HW History allows us to slip inside the skins of prior ages and, if we are clear-eyed and relatively free of prejudice, we are better able to see and appreciate the long, hard struggle toward our present values and to see those values which are eternal.

    • Egads. You just gave me a blog post title.

    • Aaannnnd RES manages to summarize everything I was trying to say, and does it better. :)

    • A large portion of what’s taught in college these days is strictly tearing others down to the low level of the class leader (they don’t deserve a title), so he stands out a bit. I’ve had a couple of teachers like that. Unfortunately, they run RAMPANT in today’s college environment. When the “education bubble” bursts, and colleges have to actually COMPETE for students just to stay alive, their classes will somehow be the last cut. They should be the first…

      • The college presidents gain more benefit from forgoing their screeching about injustice than they do from dumping them.

      • scott2harrison

        I have delt with this sort of person in tech. With them it is all about what they can get and not about the job they were hired to do at all. This gives them an enormous advantage in work politics if they are not recognized and excised. I have known them to take down entire companies that were profitable before they showed up.

        Their classes will be cut when the University goes bankrupt, which it will.

    • Does this History make my butt look fat? and chronocentrism.
      I love it! Thanks for those. My degree in History came before the field was debased, and I have no children, so I’m mostly ignorant of schools today except what I hear from young people I meet. Also I’ve always felt quesy about the “greatest generation” thing. It was wrong, but seemed impolite to demur.

  4. Hmm…. Looks like I’ve got some additions to make to my reading list. :) Thanks, Red!

    • This website is a *trap*. You’ll never make it to the bottom of the reading list.

      • Oh, I realized *that* ages ago. I rationalize it by telling myself it’s this or, *shudder*, /run out/ of reading material… :)

        • I figure that it is an immortality issue. If I quit reading I’ll die. The books want me to read them.

          • Even if I were to read one book a day (which I usually don’t manage) reading the ones I have already bought and haven’t read yet might take well over a year. That is the traditional books I have bought. When you add all the interesting looking ebooks snatched on their free promotion days, and the ones I can’t resist when I happen across them on some book recycling shelf or somebody just leaving a bag on the stairway with a note ‘please take’ (hey, I work as a paper carrier, and I have ran across four of those last six months) and then I have to save anything that looks even remotely readable… I think I need intervention, not suggestions for more interesting reading.

      • Every day, more goodies added to the list. Now if only my eyesight lasts as long as the reading list…

  5. Don’t forget Walter Lord – he started as a lawyer and wound up writing histories which read like perfectly gripping novels.

  6. Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

    What have you got to loose?

    A Non-Pharmaceutical sleep aid?

    One point that I think you didn’t emphasize enough is that the Grey Goo ignores people. It is people who make the decisions, good or bad. It is people who do the exciting stuff. The boring stuff too, like taking out the trash and cooking dinner. But it is all people.

    Wayne

    • A good point, Wayne. Most of my non-fiction work is about putting the environment back into the story, so I tend to take the role of people as a given and don’t think about their presence or absence in other folks’ work.

      • History is a chronicle of events in an orderly manner. There are two types of history – environmental and human. Environmental history is what the Earth does. Human history is how we (people) relate to the environment and each other. Environmental history records such things as eons and epochs, tornadoes and hurricanes, earthquakes and tsunamis, volcanoes and plate techtonics, erosion and construction. Human history is how we interact with the constantly changing world, trying to make life a little better for us and our families. History records, usually on the macro scale, how well we succeed or fail, and what the price is.

        • Mike, I would argue that what you term “environmental history” is geology and geography, with natural history tossed in on occasion. Environmental History as an academic field is about human interaction with the environment, ranging from Imperial Chinese forest policies to the creation of national parks to why the change to automobiles and busses in the early 20th century caused the price of mushrooms to skyrocket in New York City.

          • “why the change to automobiles and busses in the early 20th century caused the price of mushrooms to skyrocket in New York City.”

            Really, why was that? I have picked mushrooms and sold them, although not for a few years, I wasn’t aware that automobiles had an effect on their price however.

            • No horses meant no horse apples. Manure from NYC provided the growth medium for a thriving mushroom industry near the city, so when the manure went away, so did the mushroom farms. Prices went up as supply dropped, and mushrooms became a treat imported from well outside the New York City area, rather than a fairly cheap staple.

      • Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter

        I’ve been collecting materials for a book on Catalytic Converters. The most interesting stuff is the personalities involved, and there were some REALLY wild people involved in the R&D.

        Never mind the personalities involved on the regulatory side, like Richard M. Nixon.

        Wayne

        • “Catalytic Converters I Have Known”

          On Tue, Jan 15, 2013 at 2:53 PM, According To Hoyt wrote:

          > ** > Wayne Borean aka The Mad Hatter commented: “I’ve been collecting > materials for a book on Catalytic Converters. The most interesting stuff is > the personalities involved, and there were some REALLY wild people involved > in the R&D. Never mind the personalities involved on the regulatory side, l” >

  7. Very good post– and gives me the reason why I loathe history textbooks, but really like history. ;-)

    • Wayne Blackburn

      That’s a good way of putting it. Every history textbook I had seemed to have as its main purpose driving me away from learning it, even though an occasional piece here and there would catch my attention.

      I’ve learned more history on the Internet, by watching people discuss it, than I ever did in school.

      • The other part of not learning history in school is that for some reason what should be the most interesting subject is always taught by the most boring teacher that can be found. It takes real talent to make the Holocaust, Gaudalcanal, and Thermopylae a yawn; but every history teacher I had had mastered that talent.

        • Hell,I had a medieval history prof who was purely the most boring lecturer I ever listened to. Honestly, how could you make medieval history a yawner? Knights, the crusades, chivalry, passage of arms, wars, castles …how on earth could all of that be rendered as tedius as … well, the Driver Ed training manuel. Yet he managed it – a gift, I guess. Fortunately, he assigned wonderful texts to read, while his lectures were Sominex-onna-stick. I was writing a thriller WWII adventure novel, in the back of the class – poor man, he probably thought I was taking copious notes.

        • My boarding school had a renowned & beloved history teacher who retired the year I matriculated. From the stories I heard he had a knack for bringing the subject to life.

          I s’pose it matters when, during a discussion of the War Between The States, you can tell the class, “So, I asked my grand-dad: what did you guys do when you heard that Rebel Yell?”

  8. Maybe I’m paranoid (all real paranoids say maybe I’m paranoid) but behind all this Leftism and moral relativism lurks people actively waiting for the return of European supremacy. If you accept that Socialism (a European political invention) is superior eventually you will accept Europeans or those of racial European extraction as superior. I have seen the rise of Leftist thinking coincide with the increasing pessimism with America’s economic future and these ideas are often held by young whites frightened by their visible loss of economic power relative to once less powerful minorities (Asians, Indians, etc.) both in America and abroad. Sure they say that they are for economic justice but once a minority group (either foreign and domestic) improves their condition they become the enemy and Uncle Tom’s (ie. conservative blacks).

    Something tells me that if America falls down and things become more wide open in terms of opportunities to gain world power many of these people will not be so professionally sympathetic. They’ll be what they always were: apologists for power and nasty little syncophants.

  9. I don’t know whether to praise you or curse you, Sarah Hoyt! I’ve ordered Swain book and begun a novel after a long hiatus. I self-published ten years ago and made all the usual mistakes. Maybe I’ll have some success this time.

  10. Paul Johnson is a good historian. Has anyone tried Robert Leckie? Martin Gilbert and Andrew Roberts are excellent! Don’t forget Gertrude Himmelfarb, & Norman Podhoretz. Archer Jones and R. Ernest Dupuy and Trevor N. Dupuy are excellent on military history. I highly recommend Archer Jones’ The Art of War in the Western World, as an introduction to military history.

    • For whatever reason, military historians tend to be quite readable. Anybody who has yet to sample Victor Davis Hanson or the late John Keegan has some treats awaiting you.

      • Just these last two days, I’ve been rereading Keegan’s history of WWI. I second that recommendation.

        • Hey, I need some histories of the French Revolution that won’t make me throw the books against the wall. Documentaries that don’t make me rip them out and break the TV would also help. Please? Thank you.

          • Robin Roberts

            Hmmm, which did you throw against the wall? Not that I can think of any that one shouldn’t … Did you try Christopher Hibbert’s “The Days of the French Revolution” ? I found Schama’s “Citizens” frustrating myself.

          • Well, there’s Edmund Burke, but that’s not a history as much as a contemporary dissection of the flaws of the Revolution. Sorry, I have no real histories to recommend. I look forward to hearing the knowledge of others in this regard.

        • Hm. I’ve got one book by Keegan, somewhere on the ‘to be read’ shelves…. (gets up and wanders towards the bookshelves…)

      • Robin Roberts

        Hanson’s Culture and Carnage is a must read on the topic of “why” western civilization prevailed over eastern civilization militarily (to oversimplify). If you are writing something SF that has culture interacting with military conflict, I think its important to read. I contrast it with Jared Diamond’s stuff which I think is misguided.

        If you want a real good conservative polemic, then I recommend “New Dealer’s War” by Thomas Fleming (esp. if you really want some good material for a good FDR hatefest). Also his “The Illusion of Victory” if want a good anti- Woodrow Wilson polemic.

        If you are interested in the Pacific War, I think that Ian Toll’s “Pacific Crucible” is a must read. It really only covers 1941 and 1942, but it does so much better than most Pacific War histories. Toll explains how and why some early things happened, putting Midway into better context for example with Coral Sea. Many details on how the US Navy learned to fight the Japanese navy in the first months of the war.

      • Harold Lamb also wrote some excellent histories and biographies.

    • I agree wholeheartedly about Paul Johnson. He is always interesting and informative, even at his most polemical; indeed, the more polemical he gets, the more informative he has to be — because he knows he has to work harder at presenting evidence to support his position.

      One of the most interesting experiences I’ve had as a history reader was going from the Durants’ The Age of Napoleon, which leaves off in 1815, and straight into Johnson’s The Birth of the Modern, which begins in the same year. It made me appreciate just how good Johnson is. The Durants didn’t bother with any events outside of Europe, and tended to treat each area of human endeavour separately. Johnson had a worldwide canvas, and showed vividly how science, politics, industry, and the arts interlocked and influenced one another. He also wrote about art history as an artist, writing knowledgeably about things like Turner’s colour palette and the effect of the new chemistry in making his paintings possible. With the Durants, you never get very far from the idea that art is something they have encountered chiefly in museums.

  11. James A Michener whose novels contain a lot of history.

    • True. I was trying to limit myself to non-fiction, even though some fiction gives as good and idea of events and times as does non-fiction.

      • “an idea,” not and idea. *sigh* I washed my hands and can’t do a thing with ‘em.

      • For my money some Fiction gives a better feel for the era because it is able to present information subjectively. L’Amour’s novels about Baranabas Sackett, Bernard Cornwell’s Saxon Chronicles and Sharpe’s tales, Eliis Peters’ Brother Cadfael and even Lars Walker’s novels are all quite effective.

        Which is not to slight our own Celia Hayes’ Adelsverein tales, which I am reliably informed are very effective.

        For that matter, the Little House books are effective history as well as children’s books.

        • Parke Godwin’s novels, especially the three set around the Conquest (Sherwood, Robin and the King, Lord of Sunset).

    • It does, but is it real history? I’ve lived in some of his places and I didn’t like the books about them.

  12. Pingback: The river of history « Back to the Classics

  13. It’s not just history books that are depressing. The “literature” kids have to read in high school and in college is just as depressing. When I was a visiting professor in Turkey, the daughter of the Dean once complained to me that the English language books she was require to read (Catcher in the Rye, etc.) were terribly depressing. Just before I returned home I went to a bookstore and bought some books for her that I thought were more up-beat. I hope she enjoyed them.

    • I am not a particular fan of “The Catcher in the Rye” either. I heard from the teenagers (and the perpetual adolescents) that the book spoke to them.

      • Catcher in the Rye is downright cheery compared to Bless Me Ultima. No, seriously. BOTH my kids had to read it. In different schools and programs. They’re also forced to read the eructations of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which lack ALL redeeming value and no I don’t care what the Nobel committee had to say. I figure they give those to anyone who is a friend of Chavez and Castro TM.

        • Never heard of it (Bless Me Ultima). However I read about two pages of Marquez, set it down, and when I found the book again, I gave it away. UGH, ugh–

        • “I don’t care what the Nobel committee had to say. I figure they give those to anyone who is a friend of Chavez and Castro TM.”

          Welllll, Obama got one, that pretty much says it all.

        • I kinda liked Bless me, Ultima, but I read it as an adult and was more interested in the culture aspects than the overall plot.

          • sixth grade. Plot. Look, my kids LIKED Brave New World and 1984 because they were the LEAST pointless “stories” they read.

          • And there was this book — trying to remember the name and failing, about the transexual minority who spends the entire book — LITERALLY — getting beat to a pulp and in the end commits suicide. That was the one that I had to find a place online for the kids to get the equivalent of Cliff’s Notes.

            What’s amazing is that some kids leave school WANTING to read for fun.

            • What’s amazing is that they still ALLOW kids to read 1984 (which I also liked for the same reason your kids did).

              • I believe they think it’s an instruction manual.

                • No, it is merely that they are so wholly incapable of self-criticism and personal awareness that they don’t think it reflects them.

                  Having grown-up in the American suburbia of the 50s and 60s, I long marveled that the people hectoring us that “it takes a village to raise a child” were typically the same people I remembered as teens sitting around complaining about the oppressive surveillance state which they inhabited, with neighbors watching their every move and ratting them out to their parents.

    • Robin Roberts

      Can we all agree that “A Separate Peace” is insipid drivel?

  14. This is probably a digression from Wave History (like all the above comments were directly related., eh?), but one of the most interesting books I’ve read that breaks down the progress of history motif is “The Might of the West” by Lawrence Brown. I definitely don’t agree whole-heartedly with all he says, but for breaking out of the oppression/progress model, and showing the limits of the sciences and various other academic fields, it is quite stimulating.

  15. An Environmental Historian I actually like, will wonders never cease? :)

    Bravo, good post.

  16. “Some historians maintain that lively writing trivializes the topic, to the extent that a major international university press is infamous for its dull works.”

    It has been said, correctly IMO, that only Stalinism could make Eastern Germany poor. Likewise, only academia has the special talent to make history boring.