Can history be interesting?

Interesting post over at Invisible Adjunct entitled Historians and the Public Sphere. It links to an article discussing the American Historical Association conference “Thoughts on War in a Democratic Age.” Apparently the AHA conference, despite a very topical and potentially compelling subject, couldn’t hold the attention of the attendees. This begged the question: if you can’t hold your colleagues attention how can you possibly inform, and capture, the public’s.

Obviously I didn’t pursue a Masters degree in history because I found it boring (it certainly wasn’t because of dreams of riches). In fact I read history regularly. But what I can no longer handle are massive and dry tomes on minutia and theory. As the adjunct pointed out, popular history does quite well especially when it relates to war.

I wonder if perhaps the academy could learn from popular history and become more relevant. It seems to me there are two things the professors could try: more interesting writing and more brevity.

Paul Johnson is an author I enjoy reading. It is not because he is brief (Modern Times is 880 pages!) or even the best scholar (his discussion of Nixon in A History of the American People is problematic at best) but because he is interesting and easy to read. His passion and interest in the subject comes through in his writing. You may not agree with him but you appreciate his willingness to stake a claim, to paint the bigger picture. Stephen Ambrose, whatever his faults, was also in this vein. Although I haven’t read a great deal of his work, I think Victor Davis Hanson is as well.

These authors used history to tell an interesting story and to draw some thought provoking conclusions. They were able to take the dry and tedious work of the archives and turn it into pleasurable reading.

Another form of history I enjoy reading is the extended essay format. I use this awkward name to delineate rather short works (150 to 200 pages in a 4×6 or 6×8 book) on people, places or ideas. I simply can’t resists a well packaged short work of this type. I own 10 of the American Presidents Series already and will probably buy the whole set. I have 12 of the Penguin Lives Series and am always on the lookout for more. I have 6 of the Modern Library Chronicles Series as well.

Top-notch scholars and interesting writers covering big and important subjects make for enjoyable reading. I am not saying that historians should forsake the hard work and painstaking detail of scholarship but simply that they come up for air and look at the big picture once in awhile. This would make things more interesting and give them much needed perspective.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).