As a trained historian, I am often asked by friends to comment on the most recent “Popular” history they’ve heard about, usually a bio of someone in an era I didn’t work in. That the work will be sloppy, contain errors and be agglomerative is usually a given. That the work will contain out and out plagiarism of real historians is often a distinct possibility.
Look, popularizers and interpreters are necessary and when they do their jobs well, they provide a great service to the public. Academic history can often be very dense and require a priori knowledge that laymen just don’t have. More to the point academic historians often can’t write their ways out of a collective paper bag. Modern authors often are engaged in nonlinear or methodologically filtered work, heavy on jargon and theory and light on narrative and they’re often writing solely for other historians and not the general public. Often I think these works are intentionally difficult and pedantic as a means of hiding a lack of actual ideas, but that doesn’t grant a dispensation to the herd of journalists and the TV talking heads that pass off light history glosses that mine the work of serious scholars in order to line their own pockets.
If I could offer some advice to those who want to read in history but aren’t experts in it, it might start with this. Shy away from biographies; they’re not really history. They, by their nature, tell the story of famous people who aren’t necessarily indicative of their time or place. In following the flow of a single life they often impose a feeling of cause and effect, and encourage a concentration on the significance of the actions of one individual that isn’t as easily indicated by the broader facts as it may appear. Biographies can be very good and very informative, but they are also the lazy man’s window into the past.
Stay away from people you see on TV a lot and people who publish a book every year or two. Famous history writers like the late Stephen Ambrose or David McCullough are using other, less famous people to write these books and they are often sloppy about making the facts fit the story they want to tell.
If you want to read popular history, that’s great but consider starting with works from the golden age of narrative history, the 1950s and early 60s. The work won’t be up to date scholarship, but it will usually be well written and it will make a great basis on which to build.
Check out the author first, even if it is just reading the back of the dust jacket. A PhD in history is not a sign of quality, but it does show a level of intellectual rigor achieved. It also helps if the historian is actually working in their field. I’ve seen books by modern historians on some element of the ancient world and vice versa. They might be bracing excursions into new territory for the author, but it isn’t the same thing as reading the work of someone who has focused on a specific time or place or technique as the center of their study.
Don’t trust folks with axes to grind. Bill O’Reilly is not a scholar (duh). He lacks any intellectual training and he is a weasel to boot. But the fact is that the venerable Howard Zinn, whose big histories often get passed around by folks on the left, may be a great communicator and his work can be a wonderful corrective to the “American exceptionalist” tradition, but his work is shot through with ideology and often willfully biased in its conclusions.
All this said, read, read, read! If you want to know more about the Civil War, read! If you want to understand the world of the Tudors or feudal Japan, read! It’s out there if you look. Oh and ask your local librarian or book seller, they almost always can steer you right.
Here are a couple of grumpy historians writing about the most recent highly paid amateur to screw up.