Academic Historians On (and Off) Year-End “Best of” Lists

‘Tis the season for media old and new to trot out their “best of” lists for the soon-to-conclude year. As I did in 2012, I’ve been working on collating some such lists into a Christmas gift-giving guide for history buffs.

In the process, I’ve been heartened to find a few academic historians garnering praise for books that reach out to broader audiences without sacrificing the strengths of our discipline: careful use of evidence, attentiveness to context, comfort with ambiguity and complexity, etc. To cite but those that made the non-fiction categories on the New York Times‘ “100 Notable Books of 2013” and Publishers Weekly‘s “Best Books of 2013“:

Of course, it’s hard not to notice that this list is dominated by senior professors holding endowed chairs (or, in MacMillan’s case, an administrative appointment) at elite research universities; they have the tenure, rank, and teaching loads most conducive to dabbling in “popular” history.

And it’s also predictable that four of the six books are in the genres of diplomatic history and biography, bastions of the narrative rather than analytical approach to writing history.

Jill Lepore wrote in 2002 about the challenge of straddling narrative and analysis, acknowledging that self-consciously “popular” history can sacrifice the latter for the former:

Lepore, Book of AgesPart of what grates academic historians is that many popular histories are, from their point of view, actually miscarried micro-histories. That is, they tell a small story but fail to use that story to interpret larger historical structures. At their worst, popular histories are all headlines. They gesture at significance but fail to demonstrate it.

Far from thickly narrating a life, the worst popular histories also tend to rip people out of the past and stick them to the present. These people from different places and times, they’re just like us, only dead. Bad popular history, like bad historical novels and films, manages at once to exoticize the past….

It’s just this kind of writing that [Princeton University historian] Sean Wilentz condemns as passive nostalgic spectacle.

(See also Gordon Wood’s semi-famous defense of analytical history, with its attendant critique of the narrative approach.)

Nevertheless, Lepore (drawing on narrative journalism and short story writing; she’s also on staff at The New Yorker) defended the value of journalistic narrative, even when received “passively” by mass audiences:

Jill Lepore
Jill Lepore – Harvard University

Much history today is written under the banner of narrative. Does it inevitably render its readers passive? No, but perhaps it should. One kind of passivity, or maybe we should call it enthrallment, is a measure of success. Readers can be nearly paralyzed by compelling stories confidently told. In the hands of a good narrator, readers can be lulled into alternating states of wonder and agreement.

Storytelling is not a necessary evil in the writing of history. It’s a necessary good. Using stories to make historical arguments makes sense, because it gives a writer greater power over her reader. A writer who wants to can pummel his reader into passivity, but a writer who wants to challenge his reader betters his odds to success by telling a story.

Not just because I think this accords somewhat with my approach to teaching history (I wish I had used the word “enthrallment” in yesterday’s post on the lecture), I’m very much sympathetic to Lepore’s argument. It’s a helpful rebuff to those academics who paint with too large a brush in deriding popular history. (On this, see my August 2012 post responding to Louisiana State University professors who expressed their wish — on behalf of all of us “in the history business” — that they “could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past.”)

But even as we should celebrate academic historians who join journalists, memoirists, novelists, and other non-scholars in helping general audiences make sense of the past, it was striking to note a different trend in another Best of 2013 list:

According to the editors of Amazon.com — the number one seller of books in the world — not a single book written by an academic historian was among the twenty best history books of 2013.

Buruma, Year ZeroFor that matter, only a few authors on the list even hold faculty status. The much-debated Reza Aslan (Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth) teaches creative writing and religion at the University of California-Riverside, though his doctorate is in the sociology of religion.The Dutch public intellectual Ian Buruma (Year Zero: A History of 1945) currently holds a chair in journalism and human rights at Bard College. Mitchell Zuckoff (Frozen in Time: An Epic Story of Survival and a Modern Quest for Lost Heroes of World War II) is a journalism professor at Boston University. Bill Minutaglio (Dallas 1963) teaches journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, and his co-author, Steven L. Davis, curates the Southwestern Writers Collection at Texas State University-San Marcos.

Indeed, the most common profession among the Amazon-honored historians is journalist. Topping the list is war correspondent Scott Anderson’s Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East. Anderson’s book also made the overall top 20 for Amazon’s editors, alongside fellow journalist George Packer’s The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America.

And it’s not just snobby editors keeping academic historians off such lists. The people who buy history books from Amazon (let me rephrase: The people who buy what Amazon calls “history” books) have made three Fox News personalities, one of their co-writers, and Charles Krauthammer five of the top selling historians on that website. As far as I can tell, you need to go down fifty-six spots, to Margaret MacMillan, to find an academic historian on Amazon’s most popular list for history.

MacMillan, The War That Ended PeaceBut that obscures how successful those like MacMillan have been at bringing their knowledge and skill into a more public arena. Here again is the list of six academic historians recognized by Publishers Weekly or the New York Times, with the overall Amazon sales rank for each book: (note that most of these are still in hardcover)

  • MacMillan, The War That Ended Peace: #856
  • Lepore, Book of Ages: #936
  • Clark, The Sleepwalkers: #1,147
  • Bailyn, The Barbarous Years: #5,777
  • Sperber, Karl Marx: #49,726 (the German translation is doing marginally better, just cracking the top forty thousand at Amazon.de)
  • Jones, A Dreadful Deceit: #50,265 (note: it won’t be published until next week)

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