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The Dustshoveller's Gazette: The Good History Book Checklist

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Good History Book Checklist

If you want to choose a great read this Christmas for you or someone else, here are my top tips for finding a good 'un (and I'm talking here about non-fiction, not historical novels):

1) Check the biog of the author on the book jacket.  How do they describe themselves?  What's their platform? Do they sound credible?  When was the last time they published a book?  Producing a book like clockwork every year doesn't leave much (or any) time for original research.

2) Does the author have a track record of specialisation in the period or topic in question?  Or does their list of other publications indicate that they cherry-pick subjects from all over the place, skimming across the surface and not doing anything in depth?

3) Call me old fashioned but I do like a good footnote.  Personally, I find histories without them frustrating and suspicious. (Sorry to postmodernists). If I want to know more, or to follow a lead, then I can - with a footnote.  And I can tell what is new research, and what is anecdotal or apocryphal.  Similarly, you can see immediately if there is too much dependence on a small number of secondary works, and all you are going to get is reheated history.  Footnotes which cite only titles and no page numbers are, well, a bit odd, in my opinion - it seems lazy and superficial, and doesn't save any space.  Sometimes books don't have footnotes at all because of space constraints imposed by publishers.  But that itself makes me wonder about the seriousness of the publisher too.  One way round this is that some authors put footnotes and references on their websites.

4) Flick to the back.  What does the bibliography look like? I avoid books which have only used about ten books in their preparation, but equally a long bibliography of books which are 30 years old is not a good thing either.  A  sign that a book may be compelling, with lots of new ideas, will be a bibliography citing:

  • manuscript (ie archival) sources, including foreign archives, where appropriate.  That means the book should contain some original work.
  • many academic journal articles (of a recent date) and/or a number of recent unpublished PhD theses.  That's because here will be the latest ideas on a topic; the author will be up to date, or at least aware of current trends and new discoveries.
  • recent publications, up to a year before the book in question is published ie up to the time the manuscript went to the publisher.
5) Look at the acknowledgements.  Who do they thank?  Lots of libraries, archives and other specialists?  Good.  In addition,  I'm usually nervous of any author who has used researchers to find material for them.  Why aren't they doing themselves?  Unless you're very old or infirm there doesn't seem to be a good reason not to do your own legwork; not least because only you can spot connections when researching and make serendipitous links. If an author's used a researcher to help them identify and translate odd bits of material in a tricky language, then that's OK, but if they are seriously specialising in a particular country's history it does make you wonder why they haven't learnt the language first. 

6) And finally, of course, have a read of the introduction or opening chapter.  Is it gripping right at the start?  If not, then you may be in for a bit of a slog.

7) Enough from me - what are your top tips?  Post your comments below!

Happy reading!

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At 12 December 2011 at 11:15 , Blogger Mike Paterson said...

This is an excellent, thought-provoking post, I've been pondering it over the weekend. You've done a sort of history book version of Orwell's Moon Under Water piece on pubs. An ideal, which is not that often fulfilled, but one should like as many boxes ticked as possible.

I think as much depends on the reader as the writer. Your definition holds for any *academic* history book. But you often read about books that are aimed at the "general reader". Sometimes this is a warning bell, sometimes not, but often it means that the source material is likely to be more secondary than primary. This doesn't bother me unduly when in "general reader" mode, as long as the information remains accurate, I am being entertained and any analysis is neither naive nor clumsy.

I'd be inclined to start with your point 6): is it gripping? and let all flow from there.

Footnotes: yes please, but I prefer same page footnotes rather than all shoved to the back which can make for a very disjointed read.
On item 1) I agree, up to a point. It depends on the imperative which you seem to hold, that a history book *must* contain original research. Two of my favourite books had very little, if any, original research at all. The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire by Edward Luttwak and A Little History of the World by Ernst Gombrich (knocked out in a few months). But then Gombrich was an extraordinary intellect and writer.

With reference to newer research = better research, this is valid, but I have noticed since undergrad days, that academic historians tend to throw away the baby with the bathwater. They also can be quite sniffy about archaeologists and their evidence. Anyone who has watched Time Team would sympathise with this PoV (!), but we must always be on our guard against professional snobbery. Something I'm not accusing you of, I must make absolutely clear!

At 12 December 2011 at 13:03 , Anonymous Anthony Vaver, "Early American Crime" said...

If we are really talking about "a great read this Christmas for you or someone else," then it all comes down to story. How well is the story told? How often does the reader think, "I can't wait to find out what happens next"? A book can meet all of the criteria listed above and still be a boring read.

A book like "Devil in the White City" may or may not have much original research, but the way it intertwines its two story lines keeps the reader moving through it at a fast pace. (And by the way, while reading the first 30 pages, I wasn't sure I was going to like the book. Then I suddenly could not put it down.) Timothy J. Gilfoyle uses a similar technique in "A Pickpocket's Tale," where he alternates between clips from a diary of a petty thief and historical research explaining the significance of those passages. When I started to reach the end of either section, I was always asking myself, "What is the thief going to do next?" or "What is the significance of what he just did or experienced?"

I will enjoy reading a more straight-forward, academic history book if it presents important research. Randolph Roth's "American Homicide" is hardly a page turner, but the mammoth scope and significance of his research makes it a must-read for historians of crime. The surprising insights that his research project reveals in the end make it a satisfying read.

Great research can certainly help the story, but it can't make a dull story more interesting.

At 12 December 2011 at 19:55 , Anonymous Caroline Shenton said...

Great comments, both - many thanks. So, (6) should in fact be: (1) Is it a good read on first glance? Good point. This reflects my own ongoing shift from writing for an academic audience to writing for a general one, as I’ve come to realise the main difference is the move from ‘What’s your thesis?’ to ‘What’s your angle?’. What will make it connect with the general intelligent reader, pique their interest and keep them turning the pages? What, other words, is the story? That can cause problems for academic historians’ consciences – neatly summarised by the academic and popular historian (and now novelist) Ian Mortimer here:

I wonder what you think of his analysis?


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