May 22, 2005

Popular History

Kevin at Collected Miscellany has a nice post in reference to a snotty diatribe against "popular history" that appeared in Slate. Here's what I had to say in the comments:

A good popular history can tell a story without becoming historical fiction; and telling history as a story is essential makes it much, much easier for the reader to build the conceptual framework on which more sophisticated reading depends.

For example, what point is there in reading an argument over what did or didn't happen at the battle of Hattin if you don't know that the battle of Hattin was a major defeat for the Kingdom of Jerusalem, and and you don't know that the Kingdom of Jerusalem was established by the Crusaders, and you don't know why the Crusaders were in the Middle East to begin with, and you don't know anything about the rise of Islam or Christianity, or the later history of the Roman/Byzantine Empire, etc., etc.

Popular history helps you start building that skeleton, and gives you badly needed context. The little details may be inaccurate or "insufficiently nuanced", but you're not reading it for the little details; you're reading it for the big ones.

Once you've got the broad sweep of things under your hat, then you can dig deeper into anything that interests you. But without that broad sweep you're lost.

More to the point, while everyone would benefit from a general knowledge of history (and the republic not least) it's absurd to think that the average citizen should act like a serious historical scholar. We have other things to be doing--and without those things, our culture wouldn't be able to support the serious historical scholars we do have.

Posted by Will Duquette at May 22, 2005 08:24 AM