How to Write History

Posted by sepoy on December 06, 2004 · 4 mins read

Caleb inaugurates the Good Writing Contest to prove that "for every sentence of 'bad writing' one can point to in a journal of the humanities, someone else could produce countless counterexamples of 'good writing.'" As if his blog alone doesn't prove that thesis, he has more details on the contest.

Since my masthead holds one example of shibrum-shibrum [technical term used for incomprehensible English in the sepoy household], you can probably guess my feelings on bad academic writing. Let me stick to history and leave lit-crit people to their own defenses. Remember reading Gibbon or deTocqueville or Russell or Wells or Pirenne? They could write. Their aim was to present history for all readers - from the specialist to the novice. The complexity of thought or argumentation did not necessitate obfuscations or, heavens curse, neologisms.

There are more recent examples of historians writing great history. My personal favorites are Marshall Hodgson and Peter Brown. A random quote from Brown's Body and Society:

Piled into rabbit-warrens of one family rooms around busy courtyards, the average city dweller of the eastern Mediterranean of the fifth and sixth centuries lived in simple, private housing, which encroached relentlessly on the tidy, open spaces once associated with the ancient city. [...] The city fell silent, even among the dead

There is a sensory/tactile awareness, in the reader, of the world Brown describes. Brilliant. Now Caleb restricted the nominations to 2004 publications and that is a problem because, uh, I am kinda avoiding reading anything not being cited in my own magnum opus. Still, here are my suggestions from books purchased or coveted in the past few months. I recommend the whole book and my quotes are randomly chosen.

  • Denis Judd's The Lion and the Tiger: The Rise and Fall of the British Raj 1600-1947. This is a slender volume written for the general public by an established historian that manages clarity and complexity: "In all these ways, some covert, some open, but all pernicious, the spirit of Macaulay's great Indian education reforms of the 1830s was subverted by the growing need to keep India, with its expanding economy and its supplemental army, safely within the Empire"
  • Bruce Cumings's North Korea: Another Country which just came out in paperback. Again, for the general public and worth reading for some scintillating prose:"What can he possibly be thinking, standing there in his pear-shaped polyester pantsuit, pointy-toed elevator shoes, oversized sunglasses of malevolent tint, an arrogant curl to his feminine lips, an immodest pot belly, a perpetual bad hair day. He is thinking, Get Me Out of Here. It is a cruel fate to have but one country to give for your family, even crueler to be born into that wrong family, in the wrong country, in the wrong century ".
  • Constantin Fasolt's The Limits of History. More plugs for UofC History, but Fasolt is brilliant and the book is amazingly well written:"That leaves only one possibility: to practice history for no other purpose than to experience the limits placed on our understanding of the past by the commitment at its core. The frog needs to be swallowed with the water. Emphatically not in order to reduce history to absurdity, and much less in order to abandon knowledge, but in hope that by encountering the limits of history, we may at least become aware of something that cannot possibly reveal itself so long as it is actively denied or presupposed. That is what I shall try to accomplish in this book."
  • Paul Ricoeur's Memory, History, Forgetting. You thought I would leave french philosophers out of this, eh? No chance. This sentence has occupied me for the past few weeks:"Knowing that people of the past formulated expectations, predictions, desires, fears, and projects is to fracture historical determinism by retrospectively reintroducing contingency into history"

So, good history and good historical writing is abundant. Caleb will more eloquently state the obvious.


Caleb | December 08, 2004

Thanks for the nominations, and for your very kind words about my blog! I especially like the Brown quote. I also love "shibrum-shibrum."