Lately I’ve had several people ask me for a suggestion on a good history book to read. And sometimes, they’ve asked me why I recommended a certain work. I’ve also been asked for a list of books that I liked or recommend in certain areas. That is somewhat an ambitious project, if not a pretentious one. I have a list that I’ve used in class, but it needs updating. I intend to attach it along with a list of films as a link on the sidebar in the future. In the meantime, I’ve taken someone’s suggestion and instead decided to explain how and why I choose certain books and what to look for in selecting something to read. It’s too easy to say whatever floats your boat, but in many ways that is the short answer. That didn’t satisfy my friend however, and so I present a multi-part series on good books. I am no true expert by any means, but this is what works for me. Perhaps it will interest or help you. While this mainly focuses on History, I believe, with some alteration, it can apply to most genres.
I think this is something that can engender discussion and insight. Why do you pick the books that you read? What makes a book enjoyable to you? Please add your thoughts and comments to the discussion in the comments section. I hope to have this presented in three parts:
Part I: “Just one more question…” Like Colombo discovered, sometimes the right question will get you the right answer.
Part II: “Just the facts Ma’am” Joe Friday knew that sometimes you just gotta cut to the chase. It’s easier to do that when you know what you are looking for.
Part III “Shaken, not stirred” Sometimes the difference is all in the technique, Mr. Bond. There are tips and techniques to finding information and reading that you may not have considered.
Without further adieu, we present part 1
“What’s a good history book to read?”
I’ve been asked this question by fellow peers, students, friends, and even co-workers in other areas who know of my predilections. My answer is usually in the form of a question:
“Do you want to read about something in particular?”
“What have you been reading/watching on TV/listening to lately?”
Or “What are you interested in?”
Surprisingly enough, many have not asked themselves these questions. Why are they important?
“Do you want to read about something in particular” and “What are you interested in?” are fairly self-explanatory. Usually when someone asks me this question, they know enough about me to realize I am not the guy to ask about books on quarks, math, or generally most fiction. While they know I have eclectic interests and read a wide ranging selection of non-fiction and stuff on anything from animation and comic strips to jazz and geography, they are usually coming to me for a recommendation for an interesting history book to read. Often former peers and students were asking about what were essential history books to read or my opinions on what books I enjoyed in a particular area. So in a way when someone asks me this question, they know about my tastes and interests, but they often have not stopped to consider their own. That is very important. One individual may not enjoy a book on social economics in Colonial America (of which there are several essential books), however, they might enjoy one on crime and city life in early 20th century New York. Or one might really be interested in military history or royalty, but might really only be interested in a certain nation or timeline. While I think it is vitally important to be informed and at least somewhat knowledgeable about a wide range of human knowledge, (and in the case of history- world history) I also recognize that people are really interested in a limited number of areas. I am a little different – I really like learning about so many different things; I was once described by a debate coach as “jack of all trades, master of a couple.” So not just knowing what you like, but verbalizing it to yourself can be helpful. In that way you can narrow things down for yourself when searching in a library or asking someone for a recommendation.
“What have you been reading/watching on TV/listening to lately” is a not quite as simple, but still important. Tangential thinking and pursuits are a part of human nature. Consider the following: It was reported recently that attendance at the New York Museum of Natural History was up by some 20% in the week or so after the premiere of the movie “Night at the Museum.” CD’s by certain singers will increase in sales after a successful appearance on an awards show on television. Books about a certain artist or actor rocket in sales, after they have passed away. This is not a bad thing. Human beings will follow a line of inquiry to discover what we can until it either eludes us or no longer holds our interest. This is why scientists, anthropologists, psychologists and a whole host of other “ists” work for years in their fields of human endeavor looking for answers. It’s what leads you to discover your “likes” as a kid or teenager. It’s what museum professionals hope will happen to you after you visit an exhibit. Popular culture, like anything else, can lead to further discoveries. You can see something on TV or in the movies, and develop an interest and want to know more. However, a word of caution- not everything you see, hear from a friend, or read in a magazine may be completely accurate. I don’t think that I am bursting any bubbles when I say that most historical movies or shows set in a historical time are not always accurate or completely faithful to the record. That’s OK- its entertainment after all. And as long as you realize that going into it, that’s quite alright. So figuring out not only what you are interested in, but perhaps realizing what sparks those interests may be helpful. It will lead you and the person you are talking to perhaps focus on an area that might be of interest.
Then the next things you should consider are a set of three “working rules” that I kind of apply to recommending or even reviewing any book in any subject.
Is it interesting? Or an important work?
Does it tell a good story?
Does the author know their stuff?
The “So What?” factor.
Why? The first two are plain enough- it really has to be interesting. If the author is a colossal bore, or fills pages with indecipherable lexicon, no one will enjoy it. It will feel like walking through thick mud with cement shoes; page after page of drudgery. Sometimes, however, a work is important enough that it may warrant an attempt. I have to admit that Crime and Punishment seemed to never end for me in High School, but I am glad that I read it for certain passages have stuck with me through the years. I feel overall that the importance of the book and some of its passages and message were important enough to make up for the dull bits. This is where students are an exception, because sometimes they will have to read something to learn, but not because it interests them. Sorry.
Does it tell a good story? C’mon- to me the exciting thing about history is that it has so many good stories that can be told. Sure, you need to read your Dickens and Twain and Shakespeare; but where do you think they got the inspiration for some of their stories?
Does the author know their stuff? When it comes to history two things need to be evident, the author has to do research and has to start with a thesis. Many people will believe that just because it’s a book labeled “History” that it is accurate and true. Believe me, that isn’t always the case. In some cases, it’s just the fact that a work is old and new research has turned up important material. Other times, the author’s own biases have clouded the work and honed it to fit their own agenda or views. Be wary and be smart. Look at the author’s brief bio page- what else have they written? Are there notes and bibliography included in the book? Too many times I’ve seen a book that has no bibliography of any kind. Those kinds of books can be dangerous, because the author wants the reader to take them at face value. Any historian worth their salt now knows that you really have to put up or shut up. Objectivity is the golden compass… a worthy goal and direction that must be followed. However, one’s views, experiences, and ideas will spill over somewhat. I have found that as long as I know where the author is coming from, I enjoy the book all the more, even works that I don’t always agree with. (More about this in part II)
And finally we come to the “So What” Factor. This is quite simply a question that needs to be asked. After you have read a book, ask “so what?” In other words, why was that story or book important? What was the underlining or ultimate lesson or result? How does it continue to exert influence, or does it? Sometimes, a history book just brings entertainment, but sometimes, (and I hope, often) it should illuminate one’s understanding of their past. One of my favorite historians, Gordon Wood, once stated in an interview:
“Historical knowledge is essential for understanding yourself in the present. It’s like an individual without memory. A person suffering from Amnesia is a scary, lost person. And a society that doesn’t understand its past and doesn’t understand it correctly is going to make all kinds of mistakes in the present.”
In part II: What to look for in a good history book.
What are your thoughts? Have you read a good book lately? Share your ideas and comments with us in the comments section.
One has to have a sense that the past is different and can't be easily condemned by a different present.