Napoleon Series Archive 2003

Why Write History?
In Response To: Feu de Joie for Rory Muir ()

Mark:

Darn, I was working hard to relieve you of any suspicion that I was making direct comparisons or defence of Rory's "Salamanca 1812," or implying that you use it as a yard-stick.

I merely referred Rory's work to underscore my opinion that there is a school of historical writing that treats the crafting of a seamless, or near-seamless, narrative as something of high importance, almost to the point of being a telling with the emphasis on hiSTORY, and less on the Greek root sense of "inquiry." (Sorry, just finished listening to a long lecture series on Herodotus, so I'm primed!) I think that while such a style can provide a lot of come-hither and pleasure to those not engaged in an inquiry of much depth (and, of course, there is a place for survey and superficial acquaintance), I do think that such style often risks doing the reader at least (if not more) disservice than the the utility of the information gained provides assistance. But it's subtle. It insinuates connections into the reader's acceptance that do not stand up to real scrutiny; it cultivates an intellecutal laziness, making substanceless forms of inquiry more acceptable. The style often leads to overly neat explanations that glide past the important-interesting-alarming-fertile questions...since such questions often demand more engagement, analysis, digging (for both writer and reader). As an aside, one of the things that makes this Forum so interesting to me, is watching some of those very questions be cast up for wider pondering and observe the problem-solving that often follows.

A styly of historical exploration that openly acknowledges limits, uncertainty, educated speculation, engages in pros and cons, I find to be far more engaging, educational, and memorable. I think it also a fundamentally more honest approach, too. It emphasizes the inquisitive side of history. It is active, rather than being a passive wash of information.

I was fortunate to stuff a couple of A-levels into a year's exchange to Britian as a high-school student, one of which was history. One of the history teachers (that for European and the Special Subject--the American War of Independence!) was active and engaging and challenging in his teaching style. I actually LOOKED FORWARD to his classes. The other, for English history, was rather plodding, conventional, and to be honest, dull. It was a style that, for me, was empitomized by the way I prepared for the exams: I listed all the dates and events in a very, very long list...written on the back-side (so to speak) of that old-fashioned toilet paper that was waxy on one side. (I put it to proper use afterwards.) But all that information was about that interesting.

The latter teaching style, in my humble opinion, goes far to give "history" such a bad taste in the minds of so many students: dusty, lifeless facts with no relevance to life. I think a similarly anodyne methodolgy for books is equally mind-numbing. (There, have I set up this up in enough of an extreme?!)

A lot of what passes for history tends toward this pole, with its quest for seamless narrative, even progression of events, and graphiclessness. It usually and silently omits the anomolies, the incongruent evidence, the absence of real information, and opts instead for conveniently synthesizable interpretations. And it often dispenses with inquiry, however brief, into the what-on-earth-must-that-person-have-been-thinking element of considering why a given action was taken or decision made (or not). Yes, it is impossible to know with certainty what was in anyone's mind at any time, but there are informed estimations to be made, documentary evidence that may reflect thoughts, and so on, that can go a long way to helping the reader understand the roots of decisions and actions. (After all, is that not one crucial reason for reading history?) And I think of this as an element, too, where acknowledgement of what is and can be known is valuable, and where creative, educated speculation can be most insightful.

In the end, I understand that one must write to one's audience, and a commercial, fickle audience at that. On the other hand, there is the same question from the other side: who is to consume the product? Someone who is going to bother to buy a battle or campaign study is, I think it fair to presume, someone who WANTS TO KNOW what happened in detail. The others aren't gonna buy that book in the first place, they are the consumers of the more superficial, short survey. And lord knows, there are a lot of superficial-introductory-survey books out there than any self-respecting library would be able to hold (just check out the remainder lists!). But good, thoughtful, detailed studies are hard to find, and seem to remain valuable for years and centuries (as searches of used/antique booksellers' lists seem to suggest).

For those that bring "little commmitment" to reading about some subject-area of the Napoleonic (or any other period), there are lots of quick and dirty books. I suppose no one has gone broke catering to the market of regurgitation (it is hard to see how the umpteenth generalist book on the Napoleonic Wars adds much to the available literature, particularly when drawing heavily on the other generalist works!). While those of "little commitment" are unlikely to be buyers of battle or campaign studies, an "interesing," thoughtful, well-researched and documented, properly mapped, even ample study would not only be of wonderful for those with medium to deep commitment, but might even pleasantly surprise, possibly convert, those with initially lesser interest--particularly those who actually want to learn something.

I think it worth to write up (sensitively), rather than drift down, to readers' presumed levels. I think readers can appreciate that.

It is one thing to plod through a dull classroom reading of Shakespeare, but a good performance by a veteran cast can be electrifying. Same material...different treatment :o)

There, end of MY ramblings - Howie

Messages In This Thread

Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Better History 101
Re: Better History 101
Re: Bad History
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Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Bad History and Relativism
Re: The history book I would like to have written
Re: The history book I would like to have written
Re: The history book I would like to have written
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Bad History
Re: Rory Muir's "Salamanca".
Early Christmas
Re: Quotes
Re: Early Christmas
Re: Early Christmas
Limits of Narrative
Re: Limits of Narrative
Feu de Joie for Rory Muir
Why Write History?
How We Grow
Re: How We Grow
Re: How We Grow
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Right Angle
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Footnoting
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... Left Angle
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Only 'quite intelligent'?
Re: Only 'quite intelligent'?
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Audiences
Re: Audiences
Follow Ups or Spin Offs
Re: Follow Ups or Spin Offs
Re: Audiences
Re: Right Angle
Re: How We Grow
Reach for your Swords !
Re: Reach for your Swords !
"Full Monty" Footnotes!!
Re: "Full Monty" Footnotes!!
Re: "Full Monty" Footnotes!!
Long Footnotes
Re: Reach for your Swords !
Fair Points
When I was child, I spoke as a child
In defence of Chandler
Re: In defence of Chandler
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Re: In defence of Chandler
Re: In defence of Chandler
Re: When I was child, I spoke as a child
Re: When I was child, I spoke as a child
Re: When I was child, I spoke as a child
Re: Limits of Narrative
The Pits
Re: Limits of Narrative
And Good, Durable History
Re: Bad History
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Good Military History