Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Some thoughts on the writing of history books

For the last few months it has amused me to create a list of a hundred good history books and use twitter to let others know about them. (The hashtag is #100ghb). They are not arranged in any order of merit, though the very first (“The Defeat of the Spanish Armada” by Garrett Mattingly”) and the hundredth (“Memorials of his Own Time” by Henry Cockburn) are particular favourites of mine. I have not named the list “great” history books; it is enough to be merely “good”. Incidentally, no author occurs twice, so hundreds of what I regard as good history books are lurking just off-tweet.

The list is very much a matter of personal choice. The books are all ones that have in some way moved me, ones that I have read for enjoyment and improvement. If I ever turn the list into a book, with a thousand words or so about each one, it will be as much autobiography as bibliography. The first book on the list that I ever read was “People in History” by R J Unstead; I knew this off by heart, more or less, by the time I was ten. The most recent I read was “Voices of Morebath” by Eamon Duffy, recommended by my daughter, who is herself a historian.

When I was at school, and during the first decades of my teaching career, admission to Cambridge and to Oxford depended on performance in essay papers. These included not only a General Paper but also General Historical Questions. (In those primitive pre-GCSE days this was where I first discovered the problems of evaluating sources.) One question to a class of aspirants that usually provoked an interesting discussion was “What makes a good history book?” Sixth-formers would come up with a variety of answers, all connected to readability. I would let the argument run for a while before saying: “Surely the worth of a history book ought to be measured by the amount of new things about the past – factual information and interpretations – that it tells us.”

However, as far as readers are concerned, and that includes me, the sixth-formers were right. A book cannot be good unless it is good as a book as well as good as a piece of scholarship. The Cambridge don who complained to me that she did not approve of the books of Orlando Figes because they were “too popular” was talking rubbish. Those of us with history degrees have all spent weary afternoons dozing between the book-stacks in faculty libraries, trudging through volumes that will never be seen on the shelves of any shop and whose retail price is mind-bogglingly high because no one except faculty libraries will ever buy them. These are not good history books.

Occasionally I get asked to review books. Some of the ones that arrive are clearly PhD theses that have been turned into books with too little editorial scrutiny. One of these, that contained a lot of interesting history and that in some ways I enjoyed, included the following magnificent passage:

“Similarly John MacLean, in the presbytery of Kintyre, second son of John MacLean of Greshpol in Coll, admitted as parson of Kilmorie in Arran some time before 1688, was ousted shortly afterwards. He attracted influential patronage during his subsequent career in Ireland; minister at Coleraine and Antrim, he was chaplain to Lord Massereene and prebendary of Rosharkin. Married first to a daughter of Lachlan McNeill of Losset, by whom he had several daughters, two sons of his second marriage to a daughter of James Cubbage also carved out ministerial careers for themselves in Ireland: John became minister of Clogher in Ireland and James minister of Rochray. His middle son, Clotworthy, practised medicine in Belfast.”

This is not the way to write a good history book.

Another common fault is to write more than the data will warrant, and find verbal ways of papering over the cracks. I have in front of me a life of Eleanor of Aquitaine It is full of interesting things. But there is a 28-page chapter on Eleanor’s youth that includes the sentence: “Eleanor’s life as a child growing up in the ducal household is almost completely undocumented.”  Some medieval historians solve their problems with evidence better than others; however, there is a limit to the number of times the words “no doubt”, “possibly”, “she would have” and “perhaps” can be used without the reader’s mind drifting away.

Or, to take another case, I possess a useful book on the reign of Charles II. There is a section on economic development in which are found a couple of pages where vaguely quantitative words are freely used. “Advances”, “development”, “expansion”, “additional”, "expensive”, “spreading”, “expanding”, “increases”, “buoyant”, “scale”, “widespread”, “more”, “sheer quantities”, “growing”. As you may have guessed, there is not a statistic to be seen. What a contrast is my #100ghb Number 19, “Europe Transformed” by Norman Stone. I used to use it with classes to indicate the importance of “telling detail”. Open it at random (I would challenge pupils to choose page numbers) and discover a general point immediately supported by a fascinating snippet of statistical detail. Try it for yourself.

An outstanding discussion of the problems of writing history comes in the first section of my #100ghb Number 8, “The Face of Battle” by John Keegan. Here he analyses in depth and with many examples quoted, the difficulties of writing military history, in particular of describing in words what actually goes on when armed men set about killing each other. Traditionally historians have resorted to metaphors, with waves of men sweeping irresistibly, or advances getting bogged down. Keegan uses the rest of the book to do better, with analyses of Agincourt, Waterloo and the Somme. If you have never read it, do so.

There is, undoubtedly, a serious problem for historians here. If their books are going to be good books they have to conform to the disciplines of a book. They need beginnings and middles and ends, division into chapters, enlivening character sketches, effective changes of pace and a sense of drive or flow through the pages. This tends to result in the history being distorted, perhaps subconsciously, in order to make a book; where this is not done the book may be dull and an effort to read. Writing good history is not easy, and we can be grateful that there are enough good history books out there to last a lifetime. (I am acutely aware that my list has far too little Ancient, Medieval, American, Asian and African history and hardly any Latin American history at all. Hundreds of good books still to read.)

Historians who are making television programmes (and there are lots of really good ones) face similar problems, enormously magnified. The disciplines and conventions of the medium have to be satisfied first. Scholarship comes second.

Some of my sixth-form pupils would suggest “nice pictures” as important in a good history book. They may have thought they were being flippant, but illustrations can be chosen well or badly, and good ones can improve a book greatly. Monochrome photographs of politicians do not usually add much; cartoons say much more. Pictures which relate closely to the text, which add to the text, or pairs of pictures where the contrast is instructive really are worth the thousand words of the cliché. Winston Churchill’s books are particularly strong on maps – vital for military history – and in some cases they are on fold-out pages so that you can look at the map as you read on. This sort of thing makes a book better. Many of my #100ghb have excellent illustrations.

A few years ago my friends kept recommending “Miss Garnett’s Angel”. I was put off right at the start, for the author, seeking to create a dried-up, spiritually dead character, makes her – wait for it – a retired history teacher. This is not a unique case. In “Wise Owl’s Story” by Alison Uttley, Hare, Squirrel and Little Grey Rabbit are sorting out Owl’s belongings after his house has blown down in a gale. The books are all soaked apart from a history book which was “quite dry.” Hare leafs through it and chucks it into a puddle, where it remains dry. What a dreadful reputation historians and history teachers have created for themselves!  We all have a duty to repair the damage. If what you write or teach is “worthy but dull”, beware of being what a colleague of mine described as “so dull as to be no longer worthy.”

That is quite enough for today.

Part of the point of this blog is to let you know about my writings on Kindle. If you want to contemplate my failure to live up to my own standards (and there are certainly no pictures or maps) you will find “Lectures in Scottish History” here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Daps&field-keywords=Lectures+in+Scottish+History


  1. Dear Mr Harris,

    I thoroughly enjoy reading your blog, it was highlighted to me by Joanna Thompson. thought you may like to know I am about to graduate with a 2:1 in Law from The University of Aberdeen, I also have become Student Director (managing director) of The Aberdeen Law Project a student led law centre. I wanted to thank you for the time you spent tutoring me in both History and Politics & Government, I wouldn't have been able to achieve my goals otherwise. I hope you are well. Best wishes, Anna Robertson (class of 2009).

    1. Dear Anna,
      What a lovely surprise to hear from you like this. many congratulations on your successes at Aberdeen. No surprise at all. Do you ever come to Edinburgh? It would be fun to meet up for a gossip - maybe with other friends as well.


  2. You are quite right to state that too many PhDs are 'reprinted' with minor revisions as books. Although there are some brilliant exceptions there should perhaps be a seven year embargo rule to prevent premature publication. Nowadays academics are expected to be quite prolific rather than writing just one great book.

    I was delighted to be reminded of “The Defeat of the Spanish Armada” [1959] by Garrett Mattingly. I've not read that book since A-level - 30 years ago. It's now in its 3rd revised edition, and some copies are still available for as little as £2.81 (including postage)