The current state of mass-market historical writing is bad.
What do you expect when you pick up a book about the Ottoman Empire, or women in war, or the history of the United States? At a minimum, I expect that the author knows that history and omits no credible evidence. I expect that details that are in question will be addressed with solid research, or at least some reasonable, clearly labeled speculation. I expect the author to make clear his or her own obvious hobbyhorses, a few favorite points which the book will seek to prove, and probably spend too much time on. Ideally those might not be, but most historians have them, and as long as they are easily spotted, we can make up our own minds. I expect the author not to lie.
Those are the basics, the point of entry, the minimum acceptable standard. If you can’t count on the author to know the history, after all, you can’t trust the analysis. If the author doesn’t know what is controversial, s/he is unqualified to address the controversy. If the author works in his or her hobbyhorses too subtly and pervasively, the whole book gets slanted. If the author would lie–including leaving out well-known evidence–the book has zero credibility.
Can I say that older history books met the above standards better than those today? Not with confidence. Our lives bias us. Can I say that I’ve read some of the worst garbage of my life in recent years? Why, yes. Yes, I can. I’ll give you a couple of poster children.
A favorite U.S. history in leftish circles, Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States purports to tell our history with greater regard for the average person’s experiences and plights than, say, your standard indoctrinary high school history book, which is focused mostly on major figures and nation-shaping developments. Sounds like a worthy idea–and Zinn botches it. In numerous cases, he completely mischaracterizes events; an example is how he presents King Philip’s War as a war of extermination against the Native Americans. Even Indian historians, whom one might imagine a little prone to understandable bias on the subject, know and will tell you: that’s false. It was the Indians, sick of encroachment, gearing up to kick some colonial ass. And while the Indians eventually lost, they did inflict tremendous damage on the New England colonies. The problem is obvious: even when the truth dictates otherwise, Zinn is here to paint colonialism in the most hostile color he can arrange, facts be damned. He doesn’t need to do that. All sources make clear enough that the colonists had mistreated and aggravated the Indians plenty enough to convince them that this was a war for their own survival. A fair mind could hardly blame them for striking while they still had anyone or anything left to strike with. The truth makes the colonial era’s treatment of Native Americans bad enough; there’s no need to invent reasons. And when Zinn reaches his own lifetime, he goes completely off the reservation. He’s not even trying to tell meaningful history any more. The last portion appears to be nothing more than his frothy rant at every injustice he saw or learned of. Again, he didn’t need to go overboard. In many cases–especially the minority experience–the truth would have done. This is terrible. If you read this book, on balance, you absorb more misrepresentations than you gain new, reliable information. You’re supposed to know more truths after you read a history book, not have lingering falsehoods to disprove.
Just as bad is Larry Schweikart and Michael Allen’s A Patriot’s History of the United States. This actively pains me. Allen was my undergraduate advisor, my TA in my first history class, the man into whose office I walked and said, “Hi, Mike, I want to be a history major.” He told me what I needed to do, shook my hand and welcomed me to a discipline that has become a lifelong passion. I remember him as a capable educator and a very good guy, and I am sure he is still both. Then how could he attach his name to this book, and call it history? I still cannot know. Of course, the hobbyhorse is evident in the title, as with Zinn; you expect a certain degree of associated slant, but you don’t think they’ll fail to tell you the details of what really happened. Let’s look again at King Philip’s War, per capita perhaps the bloodiest in our history. We are told it happened, and resulted in a staggering defeat for the Native Americans. No more. That section is focused mostly on the militia system, with its strengths and weaknesses–which is a perfectly reasonable subject on its face. But when you omit to tell about the actual events, you’re writing incomplete history. That’s unacceptable enough. What is even less acceptable is that virtually this whole book is as over the top to the right as Zinn is to the left. Time and again we are served up light fare on events, but heavy integration into modern right-wing politics. The entire book reads as an indoctrination as to why one should vote Republican, and why anyone who doesn’t must surely hate his or her own country. If you want to write about that, fine–but that’s not history. It’s political indoctrination, as unappetizing as the Zinn version.
Again, I’m not claiming either book’s title lied in the qualifier, at least not too much. ‘People’s’ and ‘Patriot’s’ give at least some clue. I’m claiming both lied in the word ‘history.’ A history survey must tell the history. If you want to spin it, as long as you told it in good faith, well, that’s kind of regrettable but is human nature. Here is the real problem: people who haven’t studied a lot of history are going to fall for this stuff in many cases. Written by a college professor? They’ll tend to believe it. Sure, s/he might slant it, but surely wouldn’t lie, or skip, or misrepresent. Surely. They just wouldn’t do that, right?
They would. They do.
It really is buyer beware when it comes to published history.
How do you guard against this, if you aren’t that informed about the subject matter (which might be why you wanted to read a book)? It’s all about critical thinking. If you’re comfortable with that, you can skip the rest. If not: I read reviews, especially the critical ones. A key to the study of history is to assess credibility, decide what and who to believe. While some reviewers’ articulacy makes them look more credible than they are, most will reveal their biases and levels of understanding. Read enough reviews, and you’ll find some with the ring of truth that touch on the same issues other credible reviewers mention. This practice will serve you well deciding how much of what you read you can believe.